Blame it on our ancestors. They were convinced that...

People's Pharmacy

September 23, 1997|By Joe Graedon and Teresa Graedon

Blame it on our ancestors. They were convinced that regularity was the key to good health. To achieve this, they often relied on laxatives.

We should know better. Gastroenterologists recommend high-fiber foods with lots of liquids and regular exercise to keep most people on track. Nevertheless, it is estimated that one out of five Americans frequently uses such a product.

Stimulant laxatives offer fast relief from constipation, but questions have recently been raised about their safety.

The maker of the top-selling product, Ex-Lax, is about to change its formula. After more than 90 years on the market, Ex-Lax will no longer contain phenolphthalein.

The Food and Drug Administration has proposed a ban on this widely used ingredient because studies by the National Toxicology Program found "clear evidence of carcinogenic activity" in laboratory animals. There are no reports that phenolphthalein has caused cancer in humans, but the agency is especially concerned that this chemical may damage the crucial p53 gene, which protects the body from many kinds of cancer.

Dr. Robert Temple, drug chief for the FDA, warns that long-term use may carry a risk: "What we're saying is find another laxative" that does not contain phenolphthalein.

Novartis Consumer Health, the manufacturer of Ex-Lax, reacted to the FDA's proposed ban: "We are obviously disappointed. Based on all available data, including nearly 100 years of human use, we continue to believe that phenolphthalein products are safe and effective." But "to avoid consumer confusion," the company is voluntarily withdrawing its phenolphthalein-containing laxatives. Reformulated Ex-Lax is expected to contain senna.

This herb has been used for centuries and is a strong laxative in its own right. But there are concerns about senna as well. Back in May 1996, the FDA issued a letter indicating that senna might also cause gene or chromosome abnormalities. The agency also raised questions about the safety of similar herbal ingredients, aloe and cascara sagrada.

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Teresa Graedon holds a doctorate in medical anthropology and is a nutrition expert.

Pub Date: 9/23/97

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