There is an old saying that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. I really like this saying because it is a basic principle of skepticism, and it goes hand in hand with a statement that was made famous by none other than Carl Sagan. Namely, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I find that these two principles are broadly applicable to the many “miracle treatments” and fad diets that pervade the internet, but in this post I am just going to focus on the “Miracle Mineral Solution” (a.k.a. Miracle Mineral Supplement or MMS) as an illustration. Basically, this post is just an exercise in common sense in which I am going to point out some obvious hallmarks of snake oil.
What is MMS?
To put it simply, it’s bleach. To put it more technically, it is a 28% solution of sodium chlorate which breaks down to release chlorine dioxide, and it is the chlorine dioxide which actually reacts with pathogens (remember this chemical, it is going to show up a lot in this post). To be clear, MMS is not the same type of bleach that is used to clean your house (sodium hypochlorite), but it is nevertheless a type of bleach and is used to bleach various paper, wood, and textile products. This is also one of the chlorines that is sometimes used in very low concentrations to disinfect drinking water. Now, the fact that someone is selling a concentrated bleach solution as a miracle cure should throw up some red flags, but let’s investigate further. After all, the skeptic principle is to demand evidence, not to blindly reject something without looking for evidence.
Are its effects plausible?
According to the almighty internet, MMS cures pretty much everything. Spiritportal.org states that it “CURES” (their emphasis) “malaria, AIDs, most cancers, any type of hepatitis, tuberculosis, typhoid, pneumonia, asthma, herpes, HPV, chicken pox, smallpox, measles, influenza (including bird flu), colds, food poisoning, snake bite, Lyme disease, ringworm, roundworm, tapeworm, yeast infections, and many other common diseases.” Many other websites list additional ailments, and one hilariously unfactual website even goes as far as saying that it kills 95% of all diseases! Similarly, MMSWiki has an insanely long list that includes things like Down syndrome, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, depression, etc., and, of course, what good would a miracle cure be if it didn’t cure baldness and erectile dysfunction.
This type of list is characteristic of supposed miracle cures, and it provides really obvious evidence that these “cures” are a load of crap. For one thing, diseases like AIDs, cancer, and Alzheimer’s should jump out at you. Anytime that someone claims to have found a simple cure for one of those diseases, you should be very, very skeptical. Further, the sheer range of diseases that MMS supposedly cures gives us a good reason to be cautious. The list includes cancers, viruses, fungi, bacteria, auto-immune disorders, protozoan infections, parasites, genetic disorders, neurological disorders, snake bites, etc. I’m going to walk through some of those in more detail below, but first, just ask yourself if it is actually plausible that something is going to be effective against all of those maladies (spoiler alert: it’s not).
First, let’s look at the list of pathogenic diseases that it supposedly treats. In other words, all of the viruses, bacteria, protozoa, intestinal parasites, and fungi. When I first started looking into MMS, I was very skeptical that it would be able to kill so many different types of organisms, because all of these organisms are extremely different from each other. For example, bacteria have a cell wall made of peptidoglycan, whereas fungi have walls made of chitin; protozoa and intestinal parasites have no cell walls, and viruses don’t even have cells. So, generally speaking, treatments are specific for each group (e.g., antibiotics work for bacteria, but not viruses).
Much to my surprise, there is actually very good evidence that chlorine dioxide (the chemical that is produced by MMS) is very effective at killing all of these organisms in water. This is a very important point. Just because something kills “germs” in a glass of water or even when it is poured on a cut, that does not inherently mean that it will kill the targeted germs inside you. There are several reasons for this, but the most important one is that the chemical will react with lots of other things before it gets to the target organism. One of the primary mechanisms through which chlorine dioxide kills cells is by reacting with amine groups through oxidation/reduction reactions (type “chlorine dioxide amine” into Google Scholar for a host of articles about how it behaves). Amines are a type of chemical that contains a nitrogen with a lone pair of atoms, and they are ubiquitous in living organisms. They are, for example, part of some of the amino acids which are used to make proteins. So, we have amines, good bacteria have amines, bad bacteria have amines, etc. This is important because MMS is going to react with the first amines it encounters. Remember, this is just a chlorine atom bound to two oxygen atoms. It doesn’t have any way to detect good cells and bad cells. It’s just doing simple chemical reactions. So, let’s say that you take a few drops of MMS to treat chicken pox, most of it is going to react with the amines in the bacteria that populate your mouth and throat long before it gets circulated to the viruses that you want it to react with. True believers of course claim otherwise. According to one website:
“It [MMS] does not react with organic matter, such as food, body cells or even our ‘good’ intestinal bacteria, but is specific in destroying pathogenic microbes.”
This statement is hilariously impossible. First, all living things are made of organic matter. Amines are, for example, organic matter. So this statement is clearly false. If it were true, then MMS wouldn’t kill pathogenic microbes because they are made of organic matter. In fact, here is a paper entirely devoted to the fact that chlorine dioxide dissolves organic matter. Also, MMS does not discriminate between bacteria types. Both good bacteria and bad bacteria are made of the same chemicals, and chlorine dioxide will react with the amines in good bacteria just as quickly as it reacts with the amines in bad bacteria. Finally, there is evidence that chlorine dioxide reacts with bacteria more quickly than it does with our cells (this is the case because bacteria are much smaller than our cells so the chemical can react with them more quickly), but that is not the same thing as saying that it won’t react with our cells. If you put chlorine dioxide on living human cells and give it enough time, it will enter the cells and react with the amines. This is simple chemistry.
Next up, we have cancer. I can admit that it is technically possible that MMS could treat some infectious diseases (though that still doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to take it), but it is completely absurd to think that it could treat cancer. Cancer is not like most diseases because it is caused by our own cells mutating and replicating uncontrollably. This makes cancer extremely difficult to fight because we are fighting against our own cells! So almost anything that will kill a cancer cell will also kill our healthy cells. Cancer cells are made of the same chemicals as normal cells. They are both full of amines, and nothing about the chemistry of chlorine dioxide suggests that it would be able to tell the difference between a cancer cell and a regular cell. Again, it’s going to react with the first amines it encounters, regardless of whether those are in healthy cells or cancer cells.
Asthma is also included in the list. This inclusion is rather non-specific as there are many types of asthma that can be triggered by many different things, but most asthmas fall under the umbrella of autoimmune. To put it simply, they are caused by the body over-reacting to something harmless and, as a result, damaging itself. It would, therefore, be rather curious if MMS could treat asthma since there isn’t anything for it to kill (unlike the vast majority of other things it supposedly does). Rather, it somehow has to suppress an immune response. As with cancer, there is no reason to think that chlorine dioxide is in anyway capable of doing that.
Next, we have my personal favorite: “snake bites.” I have to assume that this means venomous snake bites (you don’t typically need medicine for a normal snake bite), but this raises the obvious question of what type of snake bit it treats. You see, there are two broad categories of snake venom: neurotoxins (which affect the nervous system) and hemotoxins (which affect the cardiovascular and muscular systems). There are, however, numerous sub-categories, and there is a tremendous amount of variation. In other words, different species have very different venoms that act very differently. Some block nerve signals, some coagulate the blood, some destroy cell membranes, etc. The chemistry of snake venom is extremely diverse and it simply isn’t plausible that one single chemical would be able to counteract all of the different types of snake venom. As someone who does research on venomous snakes, I am begging you, if you are bitten by a venomous snake, get to a hospital ASAP and do not take MMS for the bite. (On a side note, snake bite kits are also totally worthless and typically do more harm than good. Getting to the hospital as quickly as possible really is your only option [unless you live in Australia, in which case snake bandages are a good stop-gap measure to give you more time to get to a hospital])
Finally, I want to briefly look at a few of the most absurd claims about MMS. For example, MMS supposedly cures Down syndrome. This would be truly remarkable because Down syndrome is caused by a trisomy (extra copy) of chromosome #21. So people with Down syndrome have an entire extra chromosome which is giving commands to the body. So to cure Down syndrome, you would have to somehow shut off that entire extra chromosome without interfering with the other chromosomes (which are made of the same chemicals, btw). There is simply no mechanism through which chlorine dioxide could possibly do that.
The procedure for “curing” autism is similarly absurd (and downright barbaric). For some reason, people got it in their heads that autism is caused by intestinal parasites (which is one thing that we know doesn’t cause autism). So, to treat it, well-intended, but dangerously misguided parents are giving their children MMS enemas (sometimes daily)! Remember, MMS is a bleach, and it is caustic enough that it sometimes causes the children to shed their intestinal linings. To the true believers, however, these linings aren’t the results of bleach killing their children’s intestinal cells, rather they are parasitic “rope worms,” and their presence in a child’s discharge confirms that the MMS is doing its job.
Summary of supposed effects
To review, this chemical is supposedly able to cure an extremely broad array of aliments, each of which requires a different mechanism. A mechanism that kills bacteria won’t cure cancer, won’t treat snake venom, won’t suppress the immune system, won’t cause hair to grow, won’t cure Down syndrome, etc. It just isn’t plausible for one chemical to do all of these things. Now, you may be thinking, “fine, maybe the claims are exaggerated, but just because it doesn’t cure all of these doesn’t mean that it can’t cure some of them.” That is true, but there are still several problems. First, without rigorous testing, you have no way of knowing which (if any) ailment it actually treats, and you have no reason to trust the people selling this stuff. I think that I have clearly demonstrated that at least some of the claims about MMS are scientifically incorrect. This means that the people making these claims are either dishonest or ignorant. Either way, you shouldn’t be getting medical advice from them. Second, without rigorous testing, you don’t know if it is safe. There are, for example, many things that will kill bacteria (such as iodine, gasoline, Clorox, rubbing alcohol, etc.), but that doesn’t mean that drinking them is a good idea.
Is the scientific evidence to support these claims?
Every once in a great while, a truly extraordinary claim turns out to be true, but we need some really solid evidence before concluding that it is true. So, are the claims of MMS peddlers supported by science? NO! There is not a scrap of scientific evidence that ingesting MMS does anything beneficial! The only “studies” are poorly designed, uncontrolled, and self-reported tests that were conducted by the inventor of MMS (Jim Humble). You can read about his “tests” in one of his many books which he would be more than happy to sell to you. All of the other “evidence” comes from anecdotal reports. I have previously elaborated on why anecdotes are meaningless, so I won’t do it here.
Are there side effects?
According to the charlatans that sell this stuff, it has “no harmful side effects or damage to healthy cells.” This claim is characteristic of quack treatments and miracle cures, and it is a dead giveaway that you are being lied to. Any medicine that has an effect on our bodies will also have side effects. This is an inevitability of our bodies’ chemistry. All medicines (including the handful of alternative medicines that are actually effective) work entirely because of chemical reactions inside of our bodies, and for at least some people, these reactions will invariably produce unintended consequences. So, the only way that something won’t have any side effects is if it doesn’t have any effects in the first place (on a side note, this is why homeopathy doesn’t have any side effects).
This claim is especially absurd for MMS because we know that MMS has side effects. Remember that that we are dealing with an industrial strength bleach. To be fair, it is not as caustic as regular bleach, and it attacks bacteria more readily than it attacks human cells, but, it will still kill human tissue in a high enough dose. Most people only take one or two drops of this stuff, which probably isn’t enough to do much harm, but some people take large quantities of it and use it daily, which is potentially dangerous. Despite all of the claims that MMS doesn’t affect your body’s good cells, it is a scientific fact that chlorine dioxide can be lethal. Fortunately, the LD50 (the does that will kill 50% of the mice that are given that dose) is estimated to be greater than 10,000 mg/kg, which is a very high LD50. So you probably aren’t going to kill yourself with this stuff, but at the same time, there have been plenty of lab trials where animals died from chlorine dioxide exposure. The non-lethal effects vary. Some studies haven’t found much in the way of harmful side effects, but other studies have found good evidence the chlorine dioxide causes problems such as ulcers, lesions, altered blood chemistry, nausea, and diarrhea (you can find a good review of the toxicity of chlorine dioxide here).
So, as far as a bleach goes, MMS is fairly safe, and it probably won’t do much serious damage in the doses that most people take. Nevertheless, the evidence against it is strong enough that health agencies from multiple countries warn against using it. These countries include: USA, Australia, Canada, and several others. The FDA even comically states that:
“Consumers who have MMS should stop using it immediately and throw it away.”
But, of course, we all know that every major health organization in the world is paid off by Big Pharma (note the immense sarcasm), so let’s look at the information given to us by the supporters of MMS. Miracle-mineral-supplement.com makes the following statement:
“Note: If you notice diarrhea, or even vomiting that is not necessarily a bad sign. The body is simply throwing off toxins and cleaning itself out. Some people say they feel much better after having diarrhea.”
Now, a rational person might stop and think that perhaps they were throwing up because they drank bleach, but according to the true believers, that is simply the MMS doing its job of removing vague “toxins” and whatever else might ail you (all of course without damaging your cells or the good bacteria that live in your gut). This is clearly rubbish. First, even if the claim that your nausea and diarrhea were from the MMS working was true, that is still a side effect! You cannot simultaneously say “this has no side effects” and “while taking this you may lose your lunch and your anus may be converted into an upside-down volcano.” If taking something gives you diarrhea, then diarrhea is a side effect. Second, except under very rare circumstances, the death of bacteria, virus, etc. will not make you sick. You have these wonderful cells called phagocytes that go around removing old cells and harmful materials. They do this all the time, and you don’t get sick from it. Every day, thousands of your cells die, and phagocytes run around disposing of them.
Things are similarly bizarre when we look at the procedure for “treating” cancer. According to spiritportal.org you should start off with 1/2 drop and see if that makes you nauseated. If it doesn’t, you should keep slowly increasing the dose until you find an amount that does make you nauseated. You want to reach the dose that makes you nauseated because being nauseated supposedly means that it is working. You see, after the MMS kills your cancer cells, they become “a poison to your body,” and it is those poisonous dead cells (not the bleach) that are making you sick. I honestly laughed the first time that I read this. For one thing, Occam’s razor tells us that we should default to the explanation that makes the fewest assumptions, and that explanation is clearly that you are throwing up because you drank bleach. Further, why on earth would a dead cancer cell be poisonous? The chemical composition of cancer cells isn’t substantially different from other cells, and, as previously stated, your cells die constantly. So why would a dead cancer cell be poisonous when a normal dead cell is not? Once again, you have phagocytes that do a very good job of getting rid of dead cells.
Why isn’t MMS an approved treatment?
No miracle cure would be complete without a conspiracy theory, and MMS supporters are more than happy to concoct one. In classic conspiracy theorist form, almost every MMS website that I have looked at has stated that pharmaceutical companies are suppressing the truth of MMS because they make so much money treating these ailments, and, of course, all of the world’s health organizations (and bloggers like me) are paid shills. There are so many problems with this argument that I plan on eventually devoting an entire post to it, but for now, I’ll just hit the highlights.
First, pharmaceutical companies spend billions of dollars looking for cures to cancer, Alzheimer’s, etc. Why would they do that if they already have a cure that they have no intention of using?
Second, if MMS actually works, why wouldn’t they start marketing it themselves and make billions of dollars of off it? Inevitably they would charge way more for it than it costs to produce, and, yes, they would have to compete with the unlicensed internet retailers, but there are still plenty of people who would rather pay a little bit more and get something official than use something from the internet. Surely that would make more sense than spending billions of dollars paying off all of the world’s doctors while simultaneously spending billions of dollars looking for a cure that they already have.
Third, realize that all of the thousands of doctors who work for pharmaceutical companies have friends and family who are afflicted by these diseases (especially cancer). Do you really think that they are just going to sit by and watch tons of people suffer and die when they know that a cure exists?
Finally, realize that this claim is a question begging fallacy/ad hoc fallacy (depending on how it is worded). In other words, I would never accept this absurd conspiracy theory unless I was already totally convinced that MMS worked. So it’s a logically invalid argument.
Hopefully this post has made it clear that MMS is nothing but snake oil and shouldn’t be trusted. More importantly, I hope that this post has given you some basic common sense guidelines for examining miracle treatments, fad diets, etc. The following list gives some of the hallmark characteristics of quack treatments, and you should watch out for them.
- Implausible effects (e.g. an absurdly wide array of ailments that it cures, unrealistic recoveries, improbable amounts of weight loss, etc.)
- No plausible mechanisms for causing those effects
- No scientific evidence to support its claims
- Claims that it has no side effects
- Conspiracy theories
For MMS, we find that it doesn’t pass any checkpoints, and there is absolutely no reason to think that taking it is a good idea.