Medicine: Case of trie Substitute Salt

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People with high blood pressure, or some diseases of the heart and kidneys, are often forbidden to use salt. Last spring the Foster-Milburn Co. of Buffalo thought it had found something harmless that would give food a salty flavor. The new product, Westsal, contained lithium chloride (table salt is sodium chloride).

Early this month, doctors at a Manhattan hospital suspected that the substitute salt might have played a part in the death of a patient with heart disease. The Food & Drug Administration began experimenting, and found that heavy doses of lithium chloride killed laboratory animals. Then the FDA checked up on human patients taking the salt, found that they were suffering variously from drowsiness, weakness, loss of appetite, nausea, tremors, blurred vision, unconsciousness.

Whether the symptoms were due to the patients' diseases or to the lithium chloride, no one could positively say—at the time. But to play safe, the FDA ordered the Foster-Milburn Co. and two other manufacturers* of similar products to take them off the market.

Last week the case of the strange salt suddenly became more serious. A doctor in Ann Arbor, Mich, reported to Dr. Morris Fishbein, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, that a patient was critically ill, apparently from lithium chloride. Two days later three doctors from Cleveland's Crile Clinic sent in another report: two patients (one 70, the other 60) had died and five others were ill, apparently from the salt. Dr. Fishbein asked newspapers and radio stations to issue warnings. Planning to reclassify lithium chloride as a drug instead of as a special dietary food, FDA heard of the deaths and warned: "Stop using this dangerous poison at once."

*Foods Plus, Inc., Manhattan, makers of Foodsal; Lueth's Bakery, Kansas City, makers of Saltisal.