Scientology's Risky 'Purification Rundown'
By Lari Bishop & Sarah Hughes
Jerry Whitfield sat in his doctor's waiting room with his head in his
hands. The news wasn't good. The medical tests showed that Whitfield's
liver was damaged. It would never be fully functional again. What was
less clear was why.
Twenty-five years ago, Whitfield had suffered from Hepatitis B, a possible
cause of his liver ailment. But he also had been a member of the Church of
Scientology for 10 years. During that time, he had undergone what is
called the "purification rundown," a regimen that the church claims will
"assist in releasing and flushing out of the body the accumulated toxic
residue which may be lodged in the tissues."
The controversial program puts a subject through two or more weeks of
running, lengthy sauna treatments, a special diet, and high doses of
vitamins and minerals, including niacin. Participants are advised to
consult a physician before starting, but often the advice comes from an
in-house doctor who is a member of the Church of Scientology. Whitfield
was not disqualified despite a liver that already might have been weakened
by his bout with hepatitis.
"I was worried that the problems with my liver were connected to having
taken niacin" in large dosages, Whitfield said in an interview. "I
couldn't prove that it was the niacin, but ..." There were also the
four-hour sessions in the sauna for a period of 30 days. "A friend of my
wife collapsed from the heat," he recalled.
Since 1978, about 100,000 individuals have undergone this "purification
rundown" and church officials defend the practice. According to John
Carmichael, head of the church center in New York City, the "rundown" is
"immensely useful" and has caused no "real problems that I've heard of."
But some church critics allege that the procedures are rooted in
scientific quackery and put dangerous pressures on the body through a
combination of physical exertion, heat and heavy ingestion of vitamins.
The critics contend that the "rundown" endangers the health of trusting
church members, including celebrities drawn to the church's promises of
self-improvement. Last June, the supermarket tabloid Star
trumpeted a story attributing ailments of 29-year-old Lisa Marie Presley,
Elvis Presley's daughter, to a Scientology "cleansing" ritual.
The "purification rundown" was invented by L. Ron Hubbard, a popular
science fiction writer who founded the Church of Scientology in Los Angeles
in 1954. Hubbard, who died of a stoke in 1986, argued that toxins ingested
and absorbed by the body -- from street drugs to food additives, from
perfumes to radiation -- remain as harmful residue until they are removed
through the purification process.
Hubbard expressed particular concern about LSD, which he claimed
"apparently stays in the system, lodging in the tissues, and mainly the
fatty tissues of the body, and is liable to go into action again -- giving
the person unpredictable 'trips' -- even years after the person has come
off LSD." [For more details, see Hubbard's Clear Body Clear Mind: The
Effective Purification Program.]
But some medical experts question Hubbard's grasp of nutritional science as
well as his supposed cure. They warn that the program's extremes -- long
hours in a sauna after running and massive dosages of niacin and other
vitamins -- can be harmful.
"I've talked with several psychotropic pharmacologists -- specialists in
psychotropic drugs like LSD," said Michael Glade, a doctor with the
American College of Nutrition and coordinator of the college's Council on
Endocrinology and Minerals. "None of them thinks there's very much of any
psychotropic drug stored in fat. So there isn't much to release in the
first place. And if you're going to say that someone is going to go on an
LSD trip from burning or releasing LSD stored in their fat tissues, those
people would have died long before of an LSD overdose."
Hubbard himself was no scientist, just a science fiction writer. In his
public writings, Hubbard also never explained how he conducted his studies:
how many subjects he used or whether he had a control group -- data a
trained scientist would be expected to provide.
Nonetheless, Hubbard's authoritative writing style, which made his 1950
book, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, a
long-running best-seller, added seeming legitimacy to the program. After
his death, Hubbard's theories gained an aura of dogma within Scientology as
the church simultaneously grew richer and more combative against critics.
Aggressive use of libel law silenced questions about the safety of the
"rundown" and other practices.
Yet current medical opinion suggests caution, even over the milder parts of
the "purification" regimen, such as 30 minutes a day of running to "get the
blood circulating deeper into the tissues where toxic residuals are lodged."
Though running is a popular exercise for many people, Dr. Stanley Wallach,
executive director of the American College of Nutrition, argued that
"making a blanket advocacy, not knowing the cardiovascular competence of
the patient, can be dangerous."
Even riskier, Wallach said, was putting an individual who just finished a
long run in a sauna for four hours or more at temperatures of 140 to 180
degrees Fahrenheit. Hubbard's theory was that heavy sweating could help
purge the toxins. "The impurities which have been freed up by the increased
circulation [from the running] can now be dispelled from the system and
leave the body through the pores," Hubbard wrote. "So where one is doing
the Purification program, one should be very careful to ensure that actual
sweating occurs and in volume."
Safety standards for saunas, however, warn that a person should not exceed
30 minutes in a sauna and that anyone with poor health should consult a
physician. Wallach called the lengthy sauna sessions "a dangerously
excessive time," which could lead to hyperthermia, heat exhaustion, salt
or potassium depletion and heat stroke.
Hubbard did include advice for coping with the potential health hazards,
but medical experts view the home-style remedies as failing to grasp the
seriousness of the conditions. For heat exhaustion, for instance, Hubbard
wrote that "when a person gets too warm or begins feeling faint, should the
body temperature get too high, the recommendation is to go out and take a
cool shower and then go back into the sauna."
For heat stroke, a potentially life-threatening condition, Hubbard suggested
checking a first-aid manual, put-ting the person in a gradually cooled
shower and administering fluids, salt, potassium gluconate or bioplasma.
A trip to the hospital was not mentioned.
In an interview, Scientology leader Carmichael confirmed that there was no
specific medical supervision of participants in the sauna program. But he
added that people "do it with a twin, so that if there are any problems,
somebody's there. If you fainted, you wouldn't be left lying on the floor."
Carmichael said he underwent the program himself and experienced some
initial fogginess of the brain, which he blamed on drugs he had taken in
the past. "But eventually, my mind became clear and I could think clearly
again," he added.
Others who subjected themselves to the "purification rundown" complained of
more severe complications. "Two weeks after I had finished the program, my
appendix burst," said Dennis Erlich, a former church member. "I also
suffered from hyperthermia. Since then, I frequently break out into sweats
for no reason."
As part of the cleansing process, Hubbard also recommended the drinking of
large volumes of water and the ingestion of vitamin and mineral supplements.
Hubbard called niacin the "educated vitamin" and claimed that "taken in
sufficient quantities, niacin appears to break up and unleash LSD,
marijuana and other drugs and poisons from the tissues and cells. ...
"I have seen a full-blown case of skin cancer turn on and run out on
niacin dosages ... Other lesser manifestations that may turn on with
niacin are hives, flu symptoms, gastroenteritis, aching bones, upset
stomach or a fearful or terrified condition." The "purification rundown"
recommends niacin dosages starting at 100 milligrams and rising to 5,000
But critics contend that the recommended high dosages were potentially
toxic themselves and actually cause some of the ailments that Hubbard
claimed were being driven from the body. "By the time you get up to 3,000
milligrams, you have a high incidence of very severe facial flushing,"
said Michael Glade of the American College of Nutrition. "A lot of people
think that means they're purging themselves of some bad stuff.
[But it is] an adverse reaction, not a desirable response."
Glade expressed concern, too, about recommended high dosages of other
vitamins, particularly the levels of vitamins A and D. The Scientology
program recommends a top level of vitamin A at 50,000 IU a day. Yet,
according to Glade, vitamin A is toxic starting at 20,000 IU. "People who
have been somewhat abusive of drugs or alcohol have enough liver function
compromise that 20,000 IU a day for a couple of weeks could be fatal,"
High dosages of vitamin D also could hurt people over 40, Glade said.
"That level of vitamin D [2,000 IU a day] for a couple of weeks will
actually accelerate the person's next heart attack or stroke. It will
interact with the average wear and tear of the aorta and the cardiac
valves to form crystals and create hardening of the arteries."
Another questionable aspect of the rundown is the intake of oils or what
the church calls the "Have-Waste Theory." By consuming clean oils or fats,
the theory goes, people could replace older fatty tissues, which Hubbard
believed contained toxins from drugs. To this end, the church recommends
consuming a combination of safflower, soy, walnut and peanut oils.
But medical experts again question the validity of the theory. "If you're
intaking the oils while you're doing the exercise regimen, then the oils
that you intake will be burned first and the other, older oils will stay
in your body," said Glade. "And if you're consuming them while not
exercising, that oil will be stored, and it won't make any difference what
fat burns when."
The Church of Scientology does include some cautionary advice to
participants. On its copyright page, Clear Body Clear Mind
includes the disclaimer: "The Purification program cannot be construed as a
recommendation of medical treatment or medication and it is not professed
as a physical handling for bodies nor is any claim made to that effect.
There are no medical recommendations or claims for the Purification program
or for any of the vitamin or mineral regimens described in this book."
The church also marshal some doctors to support the "purification rundown,"
but often these physicians themselves have ties to the church. The church
supplied us a report entitled "Summaries of Published Papers Regarding the
Hubbard Detoxification Method." But of the seven journal articles listed,
three were co-authored by Megan Shields, a doctor who wrote the
introduction to Clear Body Clear Mind and has close ties to the
Another cited article did not show up on two major indexes of medical
journals which we examined. MedLine, an on-line database, draws from
3,500 of the most important medical journals, and Ulrich's International
Periodicals Directory contains information on 165,000 serials published
throughout the world. The three other journal entries on the church's
list did not appear on MedLine, but were listed in Ulrich's.
Another problem is the apparent confusion among some church members in
distinguishing between Hubbard's religious views and his science-fiction
fantasies. In the mid-1960s, according to some ex-followers, Hubbard
taught that humans were made of clusters of spirits or "thetans" that had
been banished to earth some 75 million years ago by a cruel galactic ruler
name Xenu. Hubbard supposedly saw these thetans as a cause for human
unhappiness which needed to be brought under control.
"If it had just been concerned with all of Hubbard's sci-fi rubbish,
Scientology would not be so harmful," argued ex-member Dennis Erlich.
"But the problem was that as the church became more established, the
organization became more authoritarian and essentially dangerous. Those
who disagreed with Hubbard paid the price."
Jerry Whitfield, the former church member with the damaged liver, blamed
the church for holding to Hubbard's outdated theories and ignoring new
medical evidence on vitamin intake. "They ignored the potential for liver
failure within the program," he said. "I'm suffering the consequences of
Erlich and Whitfield are only two of many former church members who have
criticized the Church of Scientology and the "purification rundown." But
many other ex-members will not talk, because the litigious church has made
examples out of other critics by suing them.
Many news organizations also appear hesitant to question the practices of
the Church of Scientology, apparently for the same reason. ~
Copyright (c) 1997
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