First it was blood pressure medication. Now FDA eyes more drugs for cancer-causing chemical.

Ken Alltucker, USA TODAY

February 16, 2023·5 min read

For people managing high blood pressure, recalls of the carcinogen-tainted drug quinapril might sound familiar.

Since 2018, more than 12 million bottles of blood pressure-lowering drugs such as valsartan and losartan have been removed from the market because they contained cancer-risk chemicals called nitrosamines.

The same family of contaminants triggered recalls of the heartburn drug Zantac, the diabetes drug metformin and the smoking cessation medication Chantix.

The flurry of drug recalls because of carcinogens has prompted the Food and Drug Administration to assess the scope of the problem.

The federal regulator has asked drugmakers to evaluate all products for any risk they might contain nitrosamines. Companies that identify any such risk must conduct follow-up testing, report changes and take action by October.

DRUG RECALLS: Full list of FDA recalls since 2012

What are nitrosamines?

Nitrosamines are found in water, cured and grilled meats, dairy products and vegetables, according to the FDA. While nearly everyone is exposed to trace amounts of nitrosamines, studies link the contaminants to increased cancer risk if people are exposed to large amounts over long periods of time.

Public health experts have long been aware of the small risk associated with sustained exposure to these contaminants.

Food safety experts have worked to reduce nitrosamines in food such as cured meats to far below levels found in the 1970s and 1980s, said Dr. Stephen Hecht, a University of Minnesota professor of cancer prevention.

"The difference is with drugs it's totally avoidable," Hecht said. "I don't think this could have happened in the 1970s because there was much greater awareness of the consequences."

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