Too deliciously ironic for words: Gary Null hoist with his own petard

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In the wake of FRONTLINE’s The Vaccine War, I was going to have a bit of fun with the reactions of the anti-vaccine fringe. After all, the spokescelebrity of the anti-vaccine movement, Jenny McCarthy, has posted yet another brain dead screed at–where else?–The Huffington Post. So has everybody’s favorite pediatrician to the stars and apologist for the anti-vaccine movement, Dr. Jay Gordon. Both are incredibly target-rich environments, each worthy of its very own heapin’, helpin’ of not-so-Respectful Insolence. Truly, we have an embarrassment of riches here as far as blogging material goes.

But then I saw something even better:

A controversial alternative health guru is suing after a taste of his own medicine nearly killed him.

Gary Nulldescribed on quackwatch.org as “one of the nation’s leading promoters of dubious treatment for serious disease” – claims the manufacturer of Gary Null’s Ultimate Power Meal overloaded the supplements with Vitamin D.

The buff “Joy of Juicing” author, whose products include Red Stuff Powder and Gary Null’s Heavenly Hair Cleaner, claims he suffered kidney damage and was left bloodied and in intense pain from two daily servings of the supplement.

“Null continued to take the Ultimate Power Meal, all the while thinking that it would help him, and relieve his condition; instead, it made him worse,” the suit says.

You know, I think Jenny and her likable but unscientific pediatrician with anti-vaccine tendencies, Dr. Jay Gordon, can wait. However, I haven’t forgotten that he recently told a mother of a child with autism not to vaccinate her child’s sibling who doesn’t have autism. Either here or on my other blog, this can’t go uncommented upon. In the meantime, though, the schadenfreude of seeing Gary Null fall ill from his own supplements is just too rich to pass up. Part of the reason is that, thanks to his own product, Null apparently overdosed on vitamin D.

I can’t resist repeating it. Gary Null’s own supplement apparently almost killed him. The schadenfreude is just too rich.

It’s taking all my restraint to avoid repeating it a third time, particularly given the comic rule of three, in which something is repeated three times for comic effect, often with a switch at the end. My problem is that I’m just not funny enough to think of a good switch on this one.

Oh, the hell with it: Gary Null’s own supplement apparently almost killed him, and his lawyers are arguing this in court! But is the schadenfreude really that rich, or is it karma?

I don’t know if that was funny enough to be a good use of the rule of three (probably not), but I do know irony when I see it, particularly given that Null has built a career out of selling dubious remedies, supplements, and a variety of other potentially harmful products and ideas. Perhaps the most harmful ideas that Null promotes are anti-vaccine views and his HIV/AIDS denialism. His hostility towards scientific medicine is unrelenting, and he advocates large doses of vitamins as in essence a panacea for disease prevention and treatment.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t wish harm on anyone, not even Gary Null. I am actually happy that he appears to have mostly recovered. But Null is, in my not-so-humble-opinion, one of the biggest quacks out there today, and this sort of thing is the inevitable consequence of the lack of regulation in the U.S. Thanks to the DSHEA of 1994, the FDA is pretty much powerless to regulate most supplements before something happens. As long as the manufacturer keeps its claims sufficiently vague, using terms such as “supports the immune system” or something similar and protects itself with the Quack Miranda, it can get away with almost anything, as Gary Null’s own accidental self-poisoning demonstrates so ironically. What we have is basically the honor system, and, quite frankly, the supplement industry doesn’t have a whole lot of honor to it. As amusing as it may be to contemplate Gary Null as a victim of this lax regulation and to observe him suing one of his contractors for having botched the manufacture of one of his products to the point were several people were sickened, the situation with respect to supplements is a free-for-all, and stories like Null’s are the inevitable result:

Null, who also owns an eponymous food shop on the upper West Side, contends he was hit last December with “excruciating fatigue” that left him unable to walk and forced him to fly back to New York and cancel lectures, counseling and filming.

“Null would later be told that if he had not flown back to New York and seen his doctor, then he could have died within a short period of time,” the suit says.

“Null then sequestered himself and fasted, only consuming massive amounts of water as he was told there was no medical treatment to lower the amount of Vitamin D in his system.”

The suit accuses Triarco of inadequate safety testing that led to six consumers being hospitalized with severe kidney damage. A company representative did not return calls.

But, gee, I thought vitamin D was the wonder vitamin. If you believe alt-med promoters like Mike Adams, vitamin D can do anything: prevent cancer, protect you from H1N1 and a variety of other diseases so that you don’t need vaccines, and basically ward of all sorts of other diseases. While it is true that there is some evidence to support the contention that vitamin D is protective against some forms of cancer, the protective effect is nowhere near what is claimed by many alt-med purveyors. If you believe them, keeping your blood levels of vitamin D high virtually guarantees you’ll never get cancer! And, of course, vitamin D is so great that it can never, ever hurt you.

Apparently Gary Null and six of his customers didn’t get the message.

I also find it highly typical that, when faced with a real medical problem that really endangered his health and possibly even his life, Null apparently didn’t go to a naturopath. He didn’t go to a homeopath, as far as I can tell. He didn’t go to an acupuncturist. He went to a real doctor. Of course, I don’t know if this doctor is a woo-friendly doctor. He or she probably is. But in the end, this doctor told Null pretty much the standard line on vitamin D toxicity: Stop ingesting more vitamin D, drink lots of water to try to flush out the excess calcium, and wait for the body to “heal itself” by getting rid of the excess vitamin D.

In fact, what the vitamin D quacks don’t tell you is that excessive vitamin D can be poisonous, resulting in severe hypercalcemia, which can then result in symptoms and complications like nausea, abdominal pain, constipation, weakness, confusion, kidney stones, and cardiac arrhythmias. In severe cases, kidney failure can result. Death is quite rare, however; so I have to wonder whether there’s a bit of exaggeration in the lawsuit where it is claimed that Null was near death, exaggeration of the type that lawyers frequently use as a strategic tool when writing up their lawsuits.

Admittedly, vitamin D poisoning is fairly uncommon; it’s actually pretty difficult to ingest enough vitamin D to result in toxicity, and most victims have diseases and conditions that predisopose to vitamin D toxicity. Be that as it may, for Gary Null to have developed vitamin D toxicity severe enough to cause kidney stones (which is, I’m guessing, the cause of Null’s peeing blood), it would take an incredible overdose of vitamin D, which suggests to me that there was a real heapin’ helpin’ of raw, pure vitamin D in the supplements that came with Null’s Power Meal. This further suggests to me that the manufacturer didn’t just screw up a little, but screwed up spectacularly. Indeed, let’s take a look at Gary Null’s response:

I have been in the natural and alternative health business and education for over 35 years, and this is the first problem of this sort I have ever encountered. Last December it was brought to my attention that one our subcontractors made a mathematical error of adding too much Vitamin D to the Power Meal product. It was immediately removed from the market and we commenced with a thorough recall and warning campaign to all customers who purchased it. As a result, the relationship with the subcontractor was immediately severed. Fortunately, only one lot of Power Meal was defective and none of product reached the retail market. Nevertheless, I had taken far larger amounts over an extended period of time than anybody else. Fortunately vitamin D dissipates quickly in the body. Despite what the media is now reporting, I have returned to complete health. Unfortunately, journalists run with a story before they have all the facts.

Looking at the story, I see how disingenuous Null’s reply is. The reason, of course, is that the reporter for this news story clearly wrote most of it based on the filing of Gary Null’s own lawyers. It’s painfully obvious that the reporter basically took the lawsuit, read it, and then made a story out of it. Also, consider that the reporter did contact Null’s lawyer, and the lawyer refused to comment. The lawyer could have commented. Heck, Gary Null could have commented if he had wished, assuing his lawyers let him know that a reporter had contacted them. But he didn’t. His lawyers didn’t. But he did whine about the story on his website.

In any case, consider this. As I pointed out earlier, it is very difficult to consume levels of vitamin D that result in toxicity. Very difficult indeed. Consequently, there must have been a boatload of vitamin D in those Power Meals. The question then becomes: How much extra vitamin D did that hapless contractor accidentally add to Gary’s Power Meals? Let’s say the contractor misplaced a decimal point and in fact put in ten times too much vitamin D. That would mean that, under normal conditions, there must have been a whole lot of vitamin D in un adulterated Power Meals. (Is it me, or does the term “Power Meal” remind you of “Happy Meal,” except that it wasn’t so happy for Gary Null?Maybe I should start calling it the Happy Power Meal.) It seems unlikely that an error greater than one order of magnitude would be made, even by grossly incompetent manufacturers, but look at it this way. If it were a 100-fold, or even a 100-fold error in what was put in the supplements that came with the meal, that would speak even more poorly of the company that it could make such a monumental error

Either way, it doesn’t speak well of how little oversight is placed on the manufacture of supplements, as momentarily amusing as the discomfiture of a quack like Gary Null is. I’d love to view it as karma, but it is probably just a deliciously appropriate coincidence, a coincidence that emphasizes just how much supplement manufactures can get away with. It also suggests that there was a ridiculously high amount of vitamin D in the correctly prepared supplements in Null’s Happy Power Meal.

Thanks to the DSHEA, Null will almost certainly be able to sell his supplements again. He’ll probably have to rename them, given the bad publicity from this incident. If he renames them the Happy Power Meal, I want royalties.

ADDENDUM:

Here’s another story that gives us a little more detail:

Over the month Null, 65, ate the powdered product, he suffered “excruciating fatigue along with bodily pain,” and “began to suffer from extreme cracks and bleeding from within his feet,” the suit says.

“Null had to be in bed with his feet elevated because it was so painful he did not have the strength to walk” — but he kept eating Gary Null’s Ultimate Power Meal, “thinking that it would help him and relieve his condition.”

Gary Null is suing a New Jersey company for allegedly putting toxic amounts of Vitamin D in his Ultimate Meal product (inset).

Instead, it made it worse, according to the suit, which blames a contractor that mixed the powder.

The health nut went to see his doctor, and tests showed he had elevated levels of Vitamin D in his system. He later discovered that the Ultimate Power Meal had 1,000 times the amount of Vitamin D than the label claimed.

That meant that instead of ingesting 2,000 IU of Vitamin D daily, he was ingesting 2 million IU, the suit says. Most doctors recommend 1,000 IU a day.

I guess I was far too kind on the supplement manufacturer. How on earth does one make an error of three orders of magnitude? As a chemistry major and scientist in addition to physician, I can’t fathom how anyone could screw up that badly.