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Is Narconon safe?

Serious doubts have been raised over the safety of Narconon treatment and in particular the "New Life Detoxification Program" (the "Purification Rundown" in its original Church of Scientology version). The Oklahoma Board of Mental Health was in no doubt as to the safety of the therapy offered by the Narconon facility at Chilocco and made numerous findings of fact on the subject:

"[T]he Board concludes there is substantial credible evidence, as found by the Board, that the Narconon Program is unsafe and ineffective ...

The Narconon program includes the administration of high doses of vitamins and minerals to the Narconon patient as part of their treatment. The use of high amounts of vitamins and minerals in the amounts described administered by Narconon can be potentially dangerous to the patients of Narconon according to the more credible medical evidence ...

The Narconon program presents a potential risk to the patients of the Narconon program that delayed withdrawal phenomena such as seizures, delirium or hallucination that are occasionally seen several days after cessation of drugs such as benzodiazepines, may be misinterpreted by Narconon's non-medical staff as the effect of mobilizing the drug from fat during the sauna sweat-out procedure period. There is also a potential risk that the reported re-experience of the abused drugs' effect during the sauna sweat-out program may be the result of misinterpreted symptoms of hyperthermia or electrolyte imbalance since vital signs and serum electrolyte levels have not been consistently monitored during the sweat-out procedures or when a student is reporting the phenomena ...

There is credible evidence by way of witness testimony and review of Narconon charts which reflect that there were patients who had psychiatric problems who were taken off of their previously prescribed psychiatric medication who did not do well and subsequently developed psychiatric problems. This evidence indicates a lack of safety and effectiveness in connection with the program.

Clients of Narconon suffering from psychiatric illness, when taken off their prescribed medications, did poorly in the Narconon program and were placed in a segregated facility called destem. This practice endangers the safety, health and/or the physical and mental well being of Narconon's clients.

Narconon's program lacks any acceptable degree of quality control of the sauna temperatures and treatment. Such a lack of control endangers the safety, health and/or the physical or mental well being of its clients ...

During an on-site visit in November 1991 a student was found with a potentially dangerous low level of potassium which could lead to cramps, (muscular, skeletal problems) and cardiac arrhythmia ...

Part of the Narconon treatment program involves touch assists between patients. Touch assists involve massages between patients in rooms by themselves. Narconon has both male and female patients who are involved in the drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. This practice of touch assists could likely lead to improper sexual contact between drug addicts or alcoholics in the process of recovery. An accepted standard in such programs is for the patients to keep their hands to themselves. The practice of touch assists between male and female patients who are recovering drug addicts or alcoholics in private rooms renders the program unsafe in this respect ...

Narconon restricts access by Narconon clients to their personal physicians, family, attorneys, clergy and others by not permitting communications except at limited and designated hours. Such a practice may endanger the physical or mental well being of Narconon's clients.

The Narconon program fails to provide adequate follow-up and treatment for Narconon clients demonstrating abnormal lab tests and other medical problems.

Such failures endanger the safety, health and/or the physical or mental well being of the Narconon clients and is not in accord with acceptable drug and alcohol care and treatment.

There was no evidence that the Narconon staff inventoried and verified the medications brought on to the campus by Narconon clients. Such a failure endangers the safety, health and/or the physical or mental well being of Narconon's clients ...

Narconon clients are routinely administered clonidine. Narconon fails to provide adequate supervision for clients prescribed this medication given this drug's risks and potential for adverse consequences. Such failure to adequately supervise endangers the safety, health and/or the physical or mental well being of the Narconon clients ...

Large doses of niacin are administered to patients during the Narconon program to rid the body of radiation. There is no credible scientific evidence that niacin in any way gets radiation out of the patient's body. Rather, the more credible medical evidence supports the existence of potential medical risks to persons receiving high doses of niacin ...

No scientifically well-controlled studies were found that documented the safety of the Narconon program. There are potential dangers from the use of non-medical staff who may be unable to interpret the possibility of seizures, delirious, cardiac arrythmia, or hallucinations that are phenomena associated with the cessation of drugs. There is also a potential risk of the reported reexperience of the abused drug effect during the sauna sweat out program may be the result of misinterpreted symptoms of hyperthermia or electrolyte imbalance. Moreover, the multiple findings of fact heretofore entered by the Board establish that Narconon's program is not safe ...

The Board concludes that the program offered by Narconon-Chilocco is not medically safe. "

(Findings of Fact regarding the Narconon-Chilocco Application For Certification
by the Board of Mental Health, State of Oklahoma, 13 December 1991

Some of the points made by the Board were amplified in correspondence between Robert W. Lobsinger, editor of The Newkirk Herald Journal, and medical authorities. The use of massive doses of niacin and other vitamins (so-called "vitamin bombs" or "megavitamins") attracted particular comment:

"Excesses of Vitamin A can cause brain swelling (pseudotumor cerebri) with transient losses of vision. Niacin does increase vascular circulation but in the acid form, it has been linked to high bilirubin (jaundice) and liver damage. It has been linked to psychiatry in that it cured pellegra psychoses, a niacin deficiency. However illness may be based on both excesses and deficiencies. A person can die of dehydration (lack of water) or can drown (an excess of water). The appropriate USC of niacin is in deficiency states. Excessive use can be toxic to the liver. The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a series of position statements over the past decade speaking against the use of megavitamin and trace element therapies for various childhood behavioral and mental aspects, with strong emphasis on adversive reactions to excesses. These statements would apply to Hubbard's claims. The Niacin theory is just that, a theory, without any basis for the concept of "turning on and turning off."

Excesses of various minerals can cause GI problems and, of more concern can cause kidney problems including kidney stones."

(William B. Svoboda, pediatric neurologist, Wichita, Kansas - letter to R.W. Lobsinger, 30 April 1990)

"This "purification" or "detoxification" program is claimed to help "clear" the mind of toxins such as drugs, pesticides and chemical pollutants. It consists of large doses of niacin, vegetable oil, exercise and "low temperature" saunas. According to the followers of L. Ron Hubbard, the large doses of niacin works by stimulating the release of fat into the blood stream and this is accompanied by various "toxins" trapped in the body's fatty tissues. According to science, large doses of niacin actually block the release of fat from fat cells. This has been observed both at rest [Acta Medica Scandinavia 1962, 172(suppl):641] and during exercise [D. Jenkins, Lancet 1965,1307]. In other words, the scientific evidence shows that the exact opposite of what Hubbard's theory predicts. There is no credible support for claims that large doses of niacin clear toxins from the brain, fatty tissue or any other part of the body.

To make matters worse, large doses of niacin are hepatotoxic and can cause serious liver damage. It may also trigger gout, raise blood sugar into the diabetic range, cause itching, flushing and a rash. Nausea and gastritis are other side effects of large doses of niacin. To subject people to these potentially serious side effects on the pretense that they are being "detoxified", "cleared" or "purified" is quackery."

(James J. Kenney, Ph.D., R.D., National Council Against Health Fraud, Santa Monica, CA - letter to Dr. John Chelf, copied to R.W. Lobsinger, 5 January 1991)

"In addition there are aspects of the program which I find medically unsafe. Specifically running in a vinyl sweat suit followed by a Sauna from 140 to 180 from four to five hours a day certainly is going to cause dehydration and possibly heat injury in some patients. The author even notes this on page 168 when he discusses sodium chloride and potassium replacement, stating "it is not mandatory for every individual on the program, it is only necessary as a treatment if the symptom of salt depletion, heat exhaustion occur". This suggests that the author expects that in many cases heat exhaustion will occur. Any treatment which leads to heat exhaustion is unsound and unsafe.

The author further states "before beginning the Purification Program a person must first get a written medical officer OK". It seems quite apparent that medical officer does not equate with medical doctor or physician as the author on page 177 goes on to say "the medical officer gives a person an OK to go on to the program after insuring the person's blood pressure is normal and he is not anemic. The medical officer does these checks himself where he is trained to do so". Therefore, it seems medically unqualified persons are going to be supervising this program which I think is quite dangerous."

(C. Mark Palmer, M.D., Ponca City, Oklahoma - letter to R.W. Lobsinger, 14 August 1989)

The 1974 report to the California State Department of Health specifically emphasized this latter point, which appears also to have been behind the June 1996 decision of the Russian Ministry of Public Health and Medical Industry to ban the purification/detoxification process outright:

"Detoxification procedures should be stopped on the premises since their procedures are without proper medical supervision and may be dangerous."

[Outline for recovery, House Evaluation ("Tennant Report") - by Forrest S. Tennant, Jr., M.D., Dr.P.H., Jane Thomas, R.N., Mike Reilly, and Joseph Shannon, M.D., M.P.H. Submitted to Don Z. Miller, Deputy Director, Health Treatment System, State Department of Health, Sacramento, CA, on 31 Oct 1974.]

It should be noted, though, that to the best of the author's knowledge no deaths or serious injuries resulting directly from the purification/detoxification process have been reported. This is hard to reconcile with the warnings quoted above. As thousands, probably tens of thousands, have undergone purification treatment over the past 30 years, this suggests one of three scenarios: that Narconon has been remarkably lucky, that Narconon is very good at covering up its failures or that Narconon's regime simply is not as risky as some have suggested.


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Last updated 31 August 1998
by Chris Owen (