Where to complain about mercury in an OTC product at a chain pharmacy?
June 12, 2013 7:52 AM   Subscribe

While at CVS, I came upon Humphrey's Bedwetting Pellets, which contain mercury (II) chloride. The pharmacist didn't have any thoughts beyond the customer service email form, which I have sent. This is 2013 in a national chain, so I'd think the product could get pulled from the shelf if only the right person read my email. (Hell, it's hard to buy a mercury thermometer now.) But what person is this? What job title? Thank you.
posted by skbw to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I realize this isn't a direct answer to your question, but if it's a homeopathic product, it contains very very very very very little of its principal ingredient.
posted by blue t-shirt at 7:54 AM on June 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Um...they're homeopathic.
That means they are pretty much just water, with everything in them diluted down to negative zero.
They don't have any mercury in them.
posted by SLC Mom at 7:55 AM on June 12, 2013 [6 favorites]

Here is a nicely done cartoon that explains homeopathy. Feel free to complain because it's a swindle -- but it's not going to physically injure anybody.
posted by kmennie at 7:59 AM on June 12, 2013 [11 favorites]

CVS, surprisingly, does actually read the customer service complaint form. I got a great response when I had to complain about openly hostile pharmacy service. You could also ask to speak to the store manager and tell that person about your concerns; they will tell you the name of their regional manager if you want to take it further up the chain.

But yeah, homeopathic "remedies" really don't actually contain any of the ingredients that are supposed to be working.
posted by corey flood at 8:00 AM on June 12, 2013

I would start with the corporate contact line; ask them how you can escalate this. In my experience CVS has a very strong top-down structure and the store managers have very little control over specifics, so I would start at the top to begin with.

Also, I would disagree that all homepathic remedies can be counted on to not contain any of the "active" ingredients. It dosn't have to contain MUCH mercury to be an issue -- mercury is neurotoxic and as with lead, zero exposure is the best. So I get why this bothers you. (There is at least one case report of mercury poisoning with a homeopathic preparation of mercury, although not with this specific product.)
posted by pie ninja at 8:06 AM on June 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

As homoepathic products, as noted already, they have no active ingredients. It is a pill made of corn starch and sugar - that's it. I would not hesitate to swallow the entire bottle at once as a demonstration of how it does nothing, although this demonstration is more effective with homeopathic sleeping pills. The only problem I see here is spending money on sugar pills.

More generally, there is no requirement that consumables containing mercury not be on store shelves. If so, you would need to clear your supermarket of a lot of food, including vegetables. Also, not all mercury compounds are equal. Many do not accumulate in the body and the exposure is only a problem if it is frequent or prolonged. For example, the methylmercury in seafood does not accumulate.

If you are determined to complaint about this, I recommend you follow the chain of command. Talk with that store's manager and he/she will follow the appropriate channels.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:08 AM on June 12, 2013

To put this in perspective, according to this product page the pellets contain mercury chloride at a 6X dilution, which according to Wikipedia means one part per million. That's about the same as the mercury level of shark or swordfish.
posted by payoto at 8:13 AM on June 12, 2013 [5 favorites]

Here's a pretty good article about homeopathic dilutions. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homeopathic_dilutions

Note that most potencies you'll get at a CVS or a Walgreens are 6C or 30C. 200C is sometimes obtainable at a local pharmacy. Other potencies are available at homeopathic specialty dispensaries.

So you know, I'm a trained chemist (now working in IT) and am deeply skeptical of homeopathy but I also have some friends who seem to rely on and benefit from it. (Perhaps it IS the informal therapy as suggested by the explanatory strip that kmennie linked to, but as far as I know no actual sociological/psychological formal studies have looked at that in your usual double-blind experimental testing sort of way.)

Also the death-related scare tactics used in the explanatory strip linked above are misleading. I believe you may know that living is also a terminal disease. :) And western medicine doesn't always save us, even from simple infections. But otherwise as far as I know the strip is accurate to the work/history that surrounds this controversial subject.

On preview, damn you payoto!
posted by kalessin at 8:19 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm not going to read all the responses, because I haven't seen how the product was advertised (i.e. false claims) or to assess whether ingredients are active or not. None of us has.

But there have been people injured by non-regulated products in the past.

If you suspect that it may have harmful ingredients and/or they are making false medical claims, as a consumer, you can report products to the FDA. There are 800 phone numbers on that page, so you can at least ask a question.

Right now you can search FDA warning letters (go to the FDA website) and the FDA does issue warnings for products with false claims, products that have not been assessed for efficacy and/or safety (not limited to pharmaceutical medications) in people,etc.
posted by Wolfster at 8:19 AM on June 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

The customer service email form is really the only way for you to communicate with higher-ups - they have people who are pretty good at running interference. There's a good chance someone will read it and pass it on if it's worth passing on.

That said, you could also contact a local news outlet about this. This is exactly the kind of thing that fills time during news broadcasts and makes excellent scare teases: "A pharmacy in YOUR OWN TOWN may be selling CHILDREN'S PILLS with MERCURY in them! Is your family safe? 7 News reports, tonight at 10."

It's basically perfect, because it meets all the criteria of a good example of these stories:

- It makes for an excellent scary headline.
- The pills are bedwetting pills, marketed as being for children, so it plays on people's fear of their kids being harmed.
- The pills (for CHILDREN!) are purported to contain mercury, which is a poison and most people know it's a poison
- The mercury is right there on the ingredient list, so you can send out a camera crew to get some b-roll of the pharmacy and have someone get a couple shots of the box, zoomed in on the ingredients, and have one of the interns do that thing with the shot where the whole picture is dimmed except for an oval around the words MERCURIC CHLORIDE
- It's in a national chain so the threat almost certainly exists in your town!!
- Some dopey talking head can explain the bad effects of mercury while the hard-hitting investigative reporter makes a Thoughtful Listening Face and nods in knowing agreement
- Like other stories of this type, there isn't really any danger because the pills are harmless, but the threat sounds scary and fear = ratings

Bad PR could wind up making CVS stop carrying them. Who knows.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 8:25 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't recommend you follow the chain of command starting with the store manager. Depending on busy people to do something that is not helping their own performance evaluation is a formula for nothing to happen. Instead directly contact the corporate headquarters at the highest level you can possibly reach.
posted by Dansaman at 8:26 AM on June 12, 2013

Not asking about the merits of homeopathy, concentration of product, etc.. I work in a biochemistry laboratory.

I am asking how to go up the line. Thanks!
posted by skbw at 8:28 AM on June 12, 2013 [5 favorites]

[Indeed, folks, I think the homeopathy angle is well-covered at this point. Maybe stick with the actual question here now?]
posted by cortex at 8:33 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would contact CVS as noted above, and note that the product as it appears on their shelves appears to contain Mercury Chloride.

You should also be clear in that, As ftm noted, there is an alternate version which does not contain Mercury Chloride, and a cursory google search shows the version of the product containing Mercury "out of stock" or "discontinued" at all the major online retailers I checked.

It will help your case if you cite the specific online retailers (amazon, lucky vitamin, etc.) which no longer sell this product. CVS will be much more likely to react if they know that other retailers have pulled the product, as it makes them all the more liable for damages if any should occur.

Mercury is a naturally occurring substance and so must be OK to be present in trace amounts in certain foods, but highly doubtful as an intentional additive, especially in a children's item. My company doesn't deal in foods, but we do kids' hardline products and in my compliance duties, Mercury is of course, on the list of CHCC chemicals which went into effect this year. This specification has a whole section on naturally occurring versus intentionally added chemicals. This is a very important determination in product testing of items marketed towards kids, especially items produced for ingestion. Mercury is OK as a necessary, "intentional additive" in certain manufacturing processes in trace amounts, but I'd bet it was pulled for this reason from the online retailers, and CVS hasn't reacted yet to their existing stock.

I'm sure CVS will be glad to know this information. You can also speak to a store manager, and google "CVS regional offices [insert your state here]" to get someone from corporate on the phone. You may also want to contact Dickinson Brands, Inc., which is the parent company of Humphrey's (Their website makes no mention of this, only their Witch Hazel) but according to this class action lawsuit against Humphrey's they are in fact the parent organization.
posted by Debaser626 at 10:18 AM on June 12, 2013

Mercury is a naturally occurring substance and so must be OK to be present in trace amounts in certain foods

This is not a logical conclusion. Many naturally occurring substances are not OK to ingest in food.
posted by odinsdream at 10:19 AM on June 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

(I make a mention to contact Dickinson, because if they pulled the product voluntarily, or even if they didn't, they also wish to protect themselves from future litigation, and have contacts who are the Regional/National Buyers for CVS. They likely do not want to jeopardize their business with a large chain pharmacy for their teething and other products.)
posted by Debaser626 at 10:23 AM on June 12, 2013

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