Unscientific trend catapults into ‘health advice’


By: nabeela khan&
November 27 2023

‘Heavy metal detox bath’ for kids: Unscientific trend catapults into ‘health advice’

A viral trend on social media is promoting heavy metal detox baths for kids at home. (Source: Logically Facts)

In late October, an Instagram user posted a video claiming to “detox her children” from heavy metals using Epsom salt, baking soda, and bentonite clay in their bath. The video, which had garnered nearly 20,000 likes at the time of writing, purportedly shows how this method helped rid harmful toxins from the bodies of the uploader’s two non-verbal autistic children.

Baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, can lead to severe toxicity if ingested in large amounts, potentially causing seizures, dehydration, and kidney failure, according to the National Capital Poison Control.

Picture1-4(Screenshot of an Instagram video claiming to have detoxed kids with the help of Epsom salt, baking soda, and bentonite clay. Source: Instagram)

Another Instagram account hosts videos claiming that a product called PBX detox pack, involving a few sprays and drops, helped her toddler, allegedly on the brink of autism, detox from metal toxicity.

TikTok also features several videos detailing the bathing process, supposedly aiding children with behavioral issues, ADHD, autism, and mood swings.

(Screenshot of TikTok video explaining detox bath method. Source: TikTok)

While doctors and medical experts advise against using such detoxification methods at home, citing a lack of available scientific literature, we found that social media platforms are increasingly becoming a breeding ground for such pseudoscience. 

But before examining the potential dangers of this trend, it’s crucial to understand what detoxification entails.

What is detoxing? 

Detoxing is a process that involves using foods, herbs, supplements, and treatments to remove metals from the body through urine, sweat, and breath. It’s often described as an internal cleansing to eliminate toxic energy and metal toxicity, which may cause headaches, depression, and other ailments.

However, detoxing is a medical procedure performed in hospitals or clinics to rid the body of life-threatening levels of alcohol, drugs, or poisons.

Despite the viral nature of DIY detox videos, there’s no scientific evidence backing these methods. The National Institute of Health states, “There have been no studies on long-term effects of detoxification programs.”

Dr. Eram Hussain Pasha, Assistant Professor at the Department of Biochemistry, Santosh Medical College, discourages at-home heavy metal detoxification.

“Epsom salts (one of the suggested elements for home detoxification) are generally safe, but employing it as a primary means to address metal toxicity is devoid of medical endorsement,” Dr. Pasha says.

In a 2020 podcast, University Hospital physician and toxicologist Ryan Marino said that the whole appeal of the detox market is a desire for magical thinking. People want something to fix a problem, and “there’s definitely some sort of element of wanting to believe that that’ll be like a magical cure-all.”

False hope to ‘cure’ autism

Since some of the online videos link heavy metal toxicity with autism, we looked for evidence. The National Health Services U.K. clearly states, “Autism is where your brain develops differently to non-autistic people. It is not an illness, and there is no cure.”

“There are also treatments and approaches that are not recommended because either they’re fake or there’s evidence that they’re harmful,” the NHS added.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also warns against practices including detoxifying clay baths and chelation therapies. The FDA states, “FDA-approved prescription chelation therapy products should only be used under professional supervision. Chelating important minerals needed by the body can lead to serious and life-threatening outcomes.” 

A quick search on Google reveals that the trend has been around for nearly a decade, and users on social media platforms are now repackaging and amplifying it.

 

(Screenshot showing old articles on the trend on Google. Source: Google/YouTube)

A 2021 blog post details how a detox bath with baking soda, Epsom salt, bentonite clay, apple cider vinegar, and freshly grated ginger or ginger powder can help get “rid of toxins from a child’s body as kidneys do not develop till the age of two.”

Dr. Maithri Arunkumar, Consultant in the Department of Pediatrics at Narayana Nethralya, Bengaluru, emphasizes the importance of verifying the credentials of individuals posting such claims online. “A few things a consumer of online content should look out for before trusting what the post/video says: Does the content creator have a valid qualification in the subject being talked about? Has the creator been through such an experience and is therefore only expressing personal opinions?”

Health trends, ranging from consuming borax to drinking alkaline water, are rampant on social media. But what actions are social media platforms and intermediaries taking to combat health misinformation?

Breaking the cycle of health misinformation

Social media blurs the lines between news and entertainment, often treating influencer advice as sacrosanct. According to a research article, “wide availability of user-provided content in online social media facilitates the aggregation of people around common interests, worldviews, and narratives.”

The article highlighted that the internet also allows for the rapid dissemination of unsubstantiated rumors and conspiracy theories. 

While we found that the ‘detox’ trend was also prevalent on TikTok, a spokesperson for the platform told us that their community guidelines make it clear that they don’t allow “inaccurate, misleading, or false content that may cause significant harm to individuals or society, regardless of intent.” 

“This includes medical misinformation, such as misleading statements about vaccines, inaccurate medical advice that discourages people from getting appropriate medical care for a life-threatening disease, and other misinformation that poses a risk to public health,” the spokesperson added. 

The spokesperson said that between April and June 2023, the platform removed 95 percent of videos violating policies on integrity and authenticity, even before someone reported them.

We flagged three videos to TikTok around this trend. Of these, the platform has so far removed two. 

Speaking to Logically Facts, Prerna Juneja, a social computing researcher at the University of Washington, said, “Algorithmic amplification can inadvertently boost the visibility of problematic content, causing it to reach a wider audience. Once a piece of misinformation gains momentum, the platforms need to intervene quickly.”

Suggesting de-platforming, demonetization, and downranking as plausible measures, she emphasizes limiting the influence of repeat offenders. 

YouTube is another platform where medical misinformation is rife. A paper published in the British Medical Journal states that despite the availability of good quality accurate information on YouTube, “more than one in four of the most viewed COVID-19 videos on YouTube in spoken English contains misleading or inaccurate information.” 

A YouTube spokesperson told us, “With hundreds of hours of new content uploaded to YouTube every minute, we use a combination of people and machine learning to detect problematic content at scale. The YouTube community also plays an important role in flagging content they think is inappropriate.” 

(Screenshot of TikTok video explaining detox bath method. Source: TikTok)

However, we identified several videos on the platform promoting detox baths for children. One of these videos, uploaded in August, has garnered close to 6,500 views.

Given the virality of the trend on Instagram, we also contacted Meta for a response. The story will be updated if and when we receive a response. 

The two-point approach

Social media companies have adopted a two-point approach to fight misinformation:

  • Flag the information with the help of third-party fact-checkers (3PFCs) 
  • Amplify correct information 

ConsumerReports, an American non-profit organization, charted misinformation policies across major social media platforms. It highlighted that platforms give prominence to links from credible agencies like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and reputable news organizations to promote credible information.

We also contacted Google, and a company spokesperson said, “We fundamentally design our ranking systems to surface the highest quality information available on the open web – information that is both relevant and reliable.”

“Since 2015, Google has displayed easy-to-understand information in Health Knowledge panels. The Knowledge panels cite information from trusted, reliable sources and cover 100s of conditions from the common cold to muscle strain, headaches, anxiety, and more,” the spokesperson added.

A study from the University of North Carolina explains in detail the exact nomenclature of these policies with examples, like the documentary “Plandemic.” 

It says that “during the coronavirus pandemic, social media platforms have all taken steps to promote accurate public health information. Still, few instances can be used to understand the problem, which often amplify problematic content, such as the example of the documentary. Facebook has allowed shorter versions of the documentary ‘Plandemic’ to remain as long as they do not contain the specific sentences it deems to have “the potential to contribute to real-world harm.”

It adds, “The harms that are occurring are not always acute threats to someone’s life but instead the broad undermining of trust in health authorities.” “The platform’s definition of ‘harm’ can be a very limiting requirement.”

(Disclosure: Logically Facts is an official fact-checking partner for Meta and TikTok in the U.K. and other select European regions.)

(Edited by Nitish Rampal)



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