In the Summer 2008 issue of Wise Traditions, biochemist Galen Knight, Ph.D., and I published the article “Mad as a Hatter: How to Avoid Toxic Metals and Clear Them from the Body.” Our recommendation of hair mineral analysis for the testing and monitoring of toxic metals has prompted a slew of questions about this form of laboratory assessment,. Many of those questioners have warned us that hair testing was exposed as quackery in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 1985.
Indeed, it was, and the author of the expose was none other than Stephen Barrett, M.D., an avowed “Quackbuster” who has found fame and fortune from opposing all non-AMA approved medicine and non-ADA approved nutrition. His heavily visited website is “Quackwatch” and people and organizations exposed there read like a “Who’s Who” in alternative medicine. Drs. Weston A. Price, Russell Blaylock and Nicholas Gonzalez are just of few of my heroes “honored” therein. Alert readers might remember some serious discussion of Dr. Barrett in my Fall 2009 Wise Traditions article “What Should I Do to Become a Nutritionist? This article included information about several court cases involving Dr. Barrett and how he has been exposed in court for lacking credentials and for fraudulent credentials.
This blog will focus on the following article:
Barrett S. Commercial hair analysis. Science or scam? JAMA, 1985, August 23-30; 254 (8): 1041-5.
Avowed “quackbuster” Stpehen Barrett, MD, concludes that hair analysis is “unscientific, economically wasteful and probably illegal.”
Well, it takes one to know one. Dr. Barrett’s methodology was unscientific, inept, unethical and his article probably libelous. Indeed, it appears that this doctor went to great lengths to design a study to prove that hair analysis has little or no value and to make it look foolish and fraudulent.
Dr. Barrett sent 56 hair samples to 13 different laboratories and analyzed the results for consistency. He found that the mineral levels reported by the laboratories varied considerably between supposedly “identical samples” sent to the same laboratory as well as “identical samples sent from lab to lab. These shocking findings made national news. Thanks to Dr. Barrett many people to this day remain skeptical of hair mineral analysis, and most hair mineral analysis laboratories today refer to their specialty as “tissue mineral analysis.”
Readers of the JAMA article are at a disadvantage unless they are familiar with hair mineral analysis protocol. Dr. Barrett’s failure to adhere to standard hair analysis protocol makes his results meaningless and, to use a word he favors, “fraudulent.” The proper way to obtain a hair sample is to cut a one-inch sample close to the scalp and not to wash the sample before sending it to the laboratory.
Instead, Dr. Barrett obtained his 56 samples from two teenage girls, cut several long strains of hair up to obtain samples, mixed those samples together by hand and washed the hair under a kitchen tap.
By cutting long strands of hair, Dr. Barrett provided samples that were anywhere from a few days to several years old. Mineral content changes over time, according to the individual’s overall health and nutritional status. Even among girls who are, as Dr Barrett puts it, “healthy,” a two-year old hair of a 15 year old would not be the same as the newly grown hair of the same girl at 17 years old. Dieting, high sugar ingestion, trauma and viral infections are just a few conditions that might have changed these girls’ mineral status over a two-year period of time. Had either or both of the girls regularly used Head and Shoulders shampoo (which elevates zinc levels) or Selsun Blue shampoo (which elevates selenium levels) at some point, the samples would also have shown erratically different levels of those minerals. Hair dyeing at any point would also have skewed the results.
Mixing the samples by hand would have further confounded matters. Had the samples been perfectly mixed so that every sample would be identical the different labs would have been far more likely to obtain identical results. (Even had this happened, the report and interpretations would have been based upon a mineral pattern that never existed in either girl at a single point in time). In fact, the samples were mixed by hand, causing varied mineral levels and ratios in every sample. This procedure guaranteed that every sample would be at least slightly different and that some would probably be dramatically different.
By washing all the hair before sending it to the laboratories, Dr Barrett committed yet another blunder that would guarantee erratic results. The policy of certain laboratories is to wash the hair while other labs do not. A few labs use detergents. When each lab interprets its findings, these proceedings are taken into account. Lawrence Wilson , author of the excellent book Nutritional Balancing and Hair Mineral Analysis recommends against washing hair at the laboratory because it “erratically removes loosely bound minerals and can reduce readings by 50 percent or more.” And claims that washing the hair is likely to remove calcium, sodium and potassium and may also affect zinc, magnesium, nickel and other elements. Dr. Wilson believes that this lack of standardization is a genuine problem in the field of hair mineral testing. This particular issue would definitely have posed a problem when Dr. Barrett compared the results of “identical” hair samples measured by different labs using different protocols.
Dr. Barrett further misleads JAMA readers with omissions and commissions regarding how “normal values” are derived in hair mineral analysis, the importance of mineral ratios versus levels and the significance of percentage changes.
Not surprisingly, Dr. Barrett mocks labs and nutritionists who recommend vitamins based on the analysis of minerals. That must have seemed an easy target for him though numerous clinical studies have proven — to cite just one well-known example — that Vitamin C can be useful to help chelate toxic minerals out of the body. Dr. Barrett also appears ignorant of the fact that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers hair to be a “meaningful and representative tissue for biological monitoring of most of the toxic minerals” and that the technique is widely considered to be the best for long-term monitoring of aluminum, mercury, lead and cadmium elimination. Not surprisingly, he is unfamiliar with the patterns by which toxic minerals manifest in hair mineral analysis tests. This ignorance, of course, provides him with yet another occasion to smear this industry.
Finally, Dr. Barrett mocks the fact that the numbers of supplements recommended by the different laboratories ranged from one to eleven, though he tells us nothing whatsoever about the doses or whether the products were sold as single supplements or custom-made mixtures. In any event, the different samples would have supported the making of different recommendations. In short, this study tells us a lot more about the character of Dr. Stephen Barrett than about the capabilities of hair mineral analysis laboratories or the validity of hair mineral analysis as a diagnostic tool.
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