Drugstores pulling Zantac off shelves over carcinogen fears

Two weeks after global health experts sparked concerns about a cancer-causing agent in Zantac — a drug used to treat stomach acid — three drugstores have announced the decision to pull it from store shelves.

“CVS Pharmacy has suspended the sale of all Zantac brand and CVS Health brand ranitidine products until further notice,” the pharmacy wrote in a press release. “This action is being taken out of an abundance of caution due to a recent Product Alert from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that ranitidine products may contain a low level of nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA), which is a probable human carcinogen.”

In a statement to NBC News, Walgreens spokesperson Phil Caruso echoed the same sentiments. "We are removing Zantac and ranitidine products from our shelves while the FDA continues its review of the products," Caruso said. Rite Aid reportedly followed suit, telling the Washington Post that it is in the process of removing Zantac from the shelves, adding that it “takes customer safety very seriously.”

The removals have set off more alarm bells regarding the safety of the medicine, the details of which were contained in a Sept. 13 report from the FDA. In it, the FDA explains that Zantac is a brand name for a drug known as ranitidine, an over-the-counter medicine that works to lower stomach acid, alleviating everything from ulcers to gastroesophageal reflux disease. Although it notes that scientists have found the drug to contain “low levels” of NDMA, they add that it’s a “known environmental contaminant” that’s also present in “water and foods including meats, dairy products and vegetables.”

The FDA does not mention a recall — a step that it’s taken for other medicines with higher levels of the contaminant — but does suggest consumers who are worried look at other options. “The FDA is not calling for individuals to stop taking ranitidine at this time; however, patients taking prescription ranitidine who wish to discontinue use should talk to their health care professional about other treatment options,” the report reads. “People taking OTC ranitidine could consider using other OTC medicines approved for their condition. There are multiple drugs on the market that are approved for the same or similar uses as ranitidine.”

On its website, the FDA is now linking to a portal for consumers and health care experts to “report any adverse reactions” to ranitidine, in hopes of gaining a clearer understanding of how the chemical is affecting those using it. But for now, the organization’s director of drug evaluation and research Janet Woodcock, MD, does not seem overly concerned. “Patients should be able to trust that their medicines are as safe as they can be and that the benefits of taking them outweigh any risk to their health,” she writes. “Although NDMA may cause harm in large amounts, the levels the FDA is finding in ranitidine from preliminary tests barely exceed amounts you might expect to find in common foods.”

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