Note: This article originally appeared in Skeptical Inquirer, 28(1), 48-50 & 55, January/February 2004. I’m recycling it now because I have been at The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas instead of home at my computer writing new posts. It’s still timely: despite multiple debunkings and FTC actions, vitamin O is still for sale. Amazon has it for $4.80 an ounce. I’m no Mark Crislip; but I like to think this article borders on the Crislipian. Enjoy!
Oxygen is not just in the air; it’s on the shelves. It has been discovered by alternative medicine and is being sold in various forms in the health supplement marketplace. Back when I was an intern, we used to joke that there were four basic rules of medicine: (1) Air goes in and out. (2) Blood goes round and round. (3) Oxygen is good. (4) Bleeding always stops.
Alternative medicine has latched on to rule number three and won’t let go. The rationale, apparently, is that oxygen is required to support life; therefore more oxygen should make you more healthy. It’s not clear how this relates to alternative medicine’s advice on anti-oxidants, but that’s irrelevant. OXYGEN IS GOOD, so we should put it in our soft drinks and breathe it at oxygen bars. Take an oxygen tank home with you — you might feel better. The oxygen vendor might feel better, too. Dr Andrew Weil, the renowned health guru, tells patients with chronic fatigue to ask their doctors to prescribe oxygen for a home trial. Sure, why not? The money it costs will literally vanish “into thin air,” but who cares? OXYGEN IS GOOD.
Ignore the fact that you could find out whether you need oxygen by testing your blood oxygen saturation with that little-clip-thingy-they-stick-on-your-finger-in-the-emergency-room (aka pulse oximeter). Who cares if your blood is fully saturated with oxygen already? OXYGEN IS GOOD. If your oxygen saturation is a little less than 100 percent, there is no evidence that raising it will help with anything. If it is a lot less, and you do need oxygen, any competent doctor should be able to figure that out. But try an oxygen tank anyway: OXYGEN IS GOOD. Is this starting to sound like a mantra? It should. This is religious belief I am talking about, not science.
Just breathing oxygen is boring: any dumb animal can do that. Why not drink it? Alternative medicine found ways to use oxygen in a liquid form. No, not liquid oxygen; that’s kind of chilly (around minus 183 degrees Celsius). You could buy a $1,600 home water cooler to infuse oxygen into your drinking water and call that liquid oxygen. Or you could use chemicals that release oxygen. Ozone gives off oxygen. So do hydrogen peroxide and chlorite compounds. They’re corrosive chemicals, but if you mix them with liquid and drink them, they will release friendly little oxygen bubbles in your stomach and maybe the dilution will counteract the corrosive effect. Corrosion may be bad, but OXYGEN IS GOOD.
Proponents of hydrogen peroxide found it worked wonders for everything from multiple sclerosis and cancer to hemorrhoids and the common cold. They tried bathing in it, drinking it, injecting it into their veins, and pumping it up their rectums. The proponents of hydrogen peroxide never reported any adverse effects. On the other hand, the medical literature reported that hydrogen peroxide caused deaths from gas embolism, gangrene, seizures, strokes, and other complications. How could that be? Didn’t those scientists know that OXYGEN IS GOOD?
Could oxygen cure cancer and AIDS? They tried ozone by enema. They tried oxygen under pressure in a hyperbaric chamber. They even put cancer patients into a coma with overdoses of insulin in the hope that it would somehow regulate oxygen delivery to the cancer cells. Scientists insisted there was no proof that these therapies worked, but they couldn’t prove to the true believers that they didn’t work. Scientists insisted that these therapies could be harmful, but how could anything as natural as oxygen possibly be harmful? OXYGEN IS GOOD.
Invention proceeded apace. Alternative “science” found a way to put “electrically activated” oxygen in water. No one knows what “activated oxygen” means, but it sounds impressive. OXYGEN IS GOOD, and if it’s activated it ought to be even better.
Once it bas been “activated” in water, you can take oxygen safely and conveniently in the form of drops. You can put a few drops under your tongue, or drink them in a glass of water, and you will feel better. Of course, the amount of oxygen in a few drops of water is many orders of magnitude less than that contained in every breath. Of course, little or no oxygen is absorbed from the stomach. But fish get their oxygen from water, and if fish can do it, we ought to be able to do it too, gills or not! OXYGEN IS GOOD. They recommend that you drink it, spray it in your nose, gargle with it, spray it on cuts, spray some on your houseplants, and spray it on vegetables, chicken, seafood, and pork to decontaminate them. You can even use it as a natural alternative to antibiotics or give it to your pets to prevent doggy breath. OXYGEN IS GOOD for just about everything.
Selling oxygen — even without oxygen
Several brands of activated oxygen appeared on the market, each better than all the test. Finally, one company came up with the best idea yet. They would sell plain water with a bit of salt and a trace of minerals, charge $10 an ounce for it, and pretend it contained activated oxygen.
The Rose Creek Company marketed oxygenated water without any oxygen in it. They said so themselves. Actually they claimed there was oxygen in it that “couldn’t be detected” in the laboratory. Their excuse was that the precision equipment couldn’t measure over 40 parts per million of oxygen. I guess if they pour a whole pot of coffee into their coffee cup, the cup stays empty; and if they overinflate their tires they create a vacuum. This probably has something to do with homeopathy or an alternate reality. OXYGEN IS GOOD, even if the lab can’t find it.
They called it “Vitamin O”. They claimed it would effectively prevent and treat pulmonary disease, headaches, infections, flu, colds, and even cancer. They claimed it regulates metabolism, aids digestion, relaxes the nervous system, boosts energy, promotes sound sleep, and sharpens concentration and memory. They were selling 50,000 bottles a month until the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) spoiled the fun. A consent agreement required them to pay $375,000 for consumer redress and to stop making false statements. They were prohibited from “making any unsupported representation that the effectiveness of Vitamin O is established by medical or scientific research or studies.”
They changed the name of their company to R-Garden, Inc. and modified their ads, but they weren’t happy. They knew that OXYGEN IS GOOD (it was definitely good for business), and they really wanted some scientific studies so they could thumb their noses at the FTC; so they hired the first scientist they could find who would stop laughing long enough to do some tests. They had to settle for an anthropologist. He reasoned that the oxygen that wasn’t there should raise the blood oxygen level of people with anemia. So he decided to measure the partial pressure of oxygen and carbon dioxide in arterial blood (PaO2, and PaCO2), hypothesizing that both would rise with “Vitamin O,” but not with a placebo. This next bit is going to be a little technical, so you may skip the next two paragraphs if you wish.
If you are anemic, you have less hemoglobin to carry oxygen. But the blood gases, the PaO2 and PaCO2, have nothing to do with hemoglobin or anemia. They are measures of gas pressure, not of total oxygen carried by hemoglobin. So people with anemia should have a normal PaO2. They might be able to raise their PaO2 a little by hyperventilating, but this would lower their PaCO2.
Anemic patients do not have low PaO2 measurements. In this study, all of the anemic patients did have low baseline PaO2. The researcher didn’t notice that this was abnormal. When subjects took “Vitamin O” their PaO2 went up, but mostly not up to normal. A couple of them developed a PaO2 of over 100 mm of mercury, which is not generally thought to be possible on room air without serious hyperventilation. He didn’t notice anything unusual about this. He also discovered that the PaCO2 went up right along with the PaO2. Ordinarily this would indicate hypoventilation, possibly from severe lung disease, but he wasn’t alarmed. He thought it would eliminate more nasty waste matter and would probably cause “greater youthfulness, improved mobility, better circulation, sharper mental clarity, enhanced heart and lung functions, and increased physical energy.” (Huh?) Of course, in several patients the CO2 went down as the PaO2 went up, but this didn’t bother him. Apparently he believes, with Ralph Waldo Emerson, that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
He concluded that he had definitely proved that oxygen is present in “Vitamin O.” In other words, if you find unexplained abnormal blood gas values and they change in a way that wouldn’t be caused by increased oxygen intake, that proves that oxygen intake was increased, which proves that the increased oxygen intake had to come from the “Vitamin O.” His logic didn’t work any better than his blood gas analyzers.
His subjects were all Hutterites, members of an Anabaptist sect who live communally in groups of 60-150 on collective farms, mainly in the western USA and Canada, and who remain aloof from outside society. He didn’t explain how he persuaded them not to remain aloof from his experimental interventions. He noted that “no protocol or consent forms” were needed, since the head minister could make all the decisions for his flock and just order them to cooperate”. It seems that Hutterites make even better experimental subjects than prisoners, because you have to get informed consent from prisoners. He didn’t bother with any statistical analysis of his data. He didn’t provide any references. He didn’t expect that anyone would try to replicate his findings. As far as he was concerned, his experiment had proved once and for all that there was oxygen in “Vitamin O.” He broke just about every rule of scientific experimentation. After all, he wasn’t searching for scientific truth, only for enough words on paper to meet the FTC’s requirements.
In another study, the same researcher discovered an unbelievably high incidence of chronic fatigue syndrome among the Hutterites, and found that “Vitamin O” relieved their symptoms better than a placebo. In his report of that study he gave an intriguing definition of his experimental method: “The three key features of this approach in assessing the efficacy of natural man-made substance [sic] were employed here: randomization, blindedness, and measurement of predetermined outcomes.” I don’t know what a “natural man-made substance” is; I agree that some kind of “blindedness” was at work; and if the outcomes were truly “predetermined,” that would explain a lot.
In essence, the company funded studies that pretended to be scientific so they could pretend to have proven that the pretend oxygen in their product is really there (and that it really works). This kind of fuzzy thinking is typical of alternative medicine advocates. They ask you to maintain your health with preventive, natural treatments that have not been proven effective, and to mistrust conventional medical treatments that have been proven effective. They exploit fears of pollution, food additives, pesticides, and side effects from pharmaceuticals. They play the science game to appease their critics, but they don’t really believe in science: they believe that truth can be accessed through intuition. They seldom disprove theories or report negative results; they rarely search for alternative explanations, or suggest that further studies be done for confirmation, or seek peer review. They believe in the mystical ability of the body to heal itself through communication with the vital forces of the universe. How could science understand these complex, holistic phenomena? Scientists aren’t even smart enough to sell water for $10 an ounce.
Science doesn’t know everything. Intuition counts for something, doesn’t it? There are more ways of knowing than scientists can imagine. Anyway, isn’t scientific “truth” wishy-washy? Newton contradicted Copernicus, and Einstein contradicted Newton. Paradigms are shifty. Eventually scientists will have to give up their materialistic theories and will come to understand that the Universe is just one big mind interconnected by a continuum of ineffable cosmic quantum something-or-others.
Proponents of alternative oxygen therapy will never be convinced it doesn’t work. As Lewis Carroll explained in Alice in Wonderland, practice makes perfect:
“One can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you havent had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
“Vitamin O” is still being sold. Testimonials abound. You can’t argue with true believers. OXYGEN IS GOOD.
Barrett, Stephen. FTC Attacks “Stabilized Oxygen Claims.” Online at www.quackwatch.org/04ConsumerEducation/News/vitamino.html.
FTC Charges. Online at www.frc.gov/os/1999/9903/rosecreekcmp.htm.
FTC Consent Agreement. Online at www.ftc.gov/os/2000/05/index.htm.
Hall, Harriet. 2003. A Failed Attempt to Prove That There Is Oxygen in “Vitamin O”. Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine(7)1, 29-33.
Heinerman, John. Proving the existence of elemental oxygen in a liquid nutritional product (“Vitamin O”) through blood gas analyses of therapy/placebo-supplemented Hutterites. Online at www.rosecreekvitamino.com/original research2002.htm1.
Heinerman, John. Electrically-activated oxygen supplementation selectively improves energy efficiency in Hutterites demonstrating classic symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome. Online at www.rosecreekvitamino.com/chronic_fatigue.html.
Marks, Stan. Vitamin O? Online at www.rgarden.net/forms/stanmarksinterview.htm.