Banned natural health supplements easily available on websites, fifth estate finds

A health product barred because it "could increase the risk of cancers" was available on the Amazon.ca website until recently, a fifth estate investigation has found. The website prohibits the sale of unsafe products, it says, but their availability shows how difficult the online world is to police.

Banned product found on Amazon.ca. It says sale of unsafe products 'strictly prohibited'

As many as three out of four Canadians use natural health products. From herbal remedies to minerals, vitamins and other supplements, it’s a billion dollar industry that includes everyone from Big Pharma to Mom and Pop operations. They're products packed with promises, but what’s actually in the bottle? Could we be taking too much? And could they actually be harmful to your health? 0:44

CBC's Marketplace and the fifth estate blow the lid off the vitamin and supplements industry.
Watch the fifth estate at 9 p.m., 9:30 NT Friday on CBC TV.


A health product barred from sale in Canada because it "could increase the risk of cancers" was easily available on the Amazon.ca website until recently, a fifth estate investigation has found.

Researchers from CBC bought a 180 tablet bottle of DHEA from Amazon.ca last month, just a few months after Health Canada seized DHEA products from a store in Mississauga, calling them "unauthorized" and saying they may pose a serious health risk. 

The fifth estate was also able to buy two products flagged as "serious health risks" and "potentially life-threatening" by Health Canada from websites in the U.S. and China: One was a "healing powder" that caused a Canadian to be hospitalized with brain, lung and kidney injuries after using it. 

The other was a so-called "slimming" product that Health Canada warned was contaminated or adulterated with "potentially dangerous undeclared drugs."

Health Canada says it relies on complaints from the public, industry and other agencies to spot problems with online sales — but critics say that leaves consumers largely unprotected in an era where more and more people shop on the web.

"With a primarily complaint-based system, if nobody is complaining you miss a large swath of products that people have access to," says Michael Kruse, chair of the advocacy group Bad Science Watch.

Tonight, the fifth estate takes a documentary look into Health Canada's oversight of the booming vitamins and health supplements industry as part of a joint investigation with CBC's Marketplace.  

Controlled drug

DHEA, a natural hormone, has been listed as a controlled drug in Canada since 1992.

Its promoters argue that it can do everything from slowing the aging process to strengthening the immune system.

But Health Canada says on its website that DHEA, also known as prasterone, "can cause higher than normal levels of female and male hormones in the body and could increase the risk of prostate, breast, ovarian, and other hormone-sensitive cancers."

DHEA, a natural hormone, has been listed as a controlled drug in Canada since 1992, and Health Canada says it can increase the risk of certain cancers. (CBC)

"There are no medications authorized for use in Canada that contain prasterone [DHEA]," Sean Upton, senior media relations officer at Health Canada, told the fifth estate in an email.

On Oct. 21, CBC researchers purchased a 25 mg bottle of DHEA on Amazon.ca through an authorized Amazon vendor called Maple Leaf Naturals. There were also several other companies selling DHEA on Amazon.ca.

CBC was unable to find any corporate registration information in Canada or the U.S. for Maple Leaf Naturals. Attempts to reach the company by email through the Amazon site went unanswered.

Natrol, the American manufacturer of the DHEA product purchased, says that Maple Leaf Naturals is not one of its licensed distributors. The product is legal for sale in the U.S.

Health Canada acknowledges 'weak evidence' for approving herbal, vitamin supplements, a fifth estate investigation shows 2:18

Last week, Health Canada informed the fifth estate that on Nov. 5 Canadian Border Services had blocked a shipment of DHEA, which had been sold by Maple Leaf Naturals on Amazon.ca

It is not clear how CBS knew about the shipment or why the crackdown took place at that moment.

The next day, Health Canada says it issued a compliance letter to Amazon.ca requesting the removal of the advertisements for DHEA products, and Amazon.ca complied.

Amazon lays the blame for the sale of any banned substances on its vendors.

Tips for buying natural health products online

In an email to the fifth estate, company spokesperson Erik Fairleigh said: "The sale of illegal, unsafe, or other restricted products listed on its websites … is strictly prohibited. If sellers are listing products that are prohibited in certain Canada jurisdictions, they must inform customers."

Health Canada's Upton said the monitoring of online health sales is primarily the responsibility of the provinces, but Ottawa gets involved if there is a violation of federal laws.

"Health Canada identifies potential non-compliance through various channels, including consumer or industry complaints," he said, adding it also relies on referrals from other agencies, media articles and inspections.

But Kruse, at Bad Science Watch, says there is much more that Health Canada can do to protect consumers from unsafe products being sold online by "putting more money into enforcement, by actually having some regulations that have some teeth."

"Instead of just a slap on the wrist and a request to take stuff down from the website, an actual fine could be levelled on people, so there is actually disincentive to sell things that are not licensed or, indeed, have been banned by Health Canada," he said.

Foreign websites

If it is not hard to get banned products from Canadian websites, it is even easier to procure potentially dangerous pills from foreign ones.

The fifth estate was able to order two such products from a China-based website and an U.S.-based one.

Body Bentonite is a natural health product that is not authorized for sale in Canada and which Health Canada says contains "high levels of metals which may pose serious health risks." 

Natural Max Slimming is a natural health product, also not authorized for sale in Canada, which was contaminated or adulterated with potentially dangerous undeclared drugs, according to Health Canada.