Over the last few months, dozens of medications prescribed to people with high blood pressure have been recalled because they contain small amounts of chemicals that may cause cancer.
The recalled drugs include valsartan, losartan, and irbesartan from certain generic manufacturers. Because so many different types of valsartan have been recalled in recent months, the Food and Drug Administration has created pages listing the products that have been recalled and those that haven’t.
"From my perspective, this is a relatively dramatic recall,” says Douglas S. Jacoby, MD, Director of Penn Cardiology Preventative Care and Medical Director of the Penn Presbyterian Heart and Vascular Pavilion. “This is a very widely used class of medication, and most people receive medications from generic manufacturers, so this impacts a lot of patients.
What’s the Risk?
Each of the recalled drugs was found to be contaminated with either N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA) or N-nitrosodiethylamine (NDEA). Both chemicals are thought to cause cancer. Some studies have also linked NDEA to liver and blood cell damage.
That said, the risk of developing cancer from any of the recalled drugs is slight, even if you’ve been taking one for years.
“Is there a possibility? In theory, yes. In practice, it’s extraordinarily unlikely because the amount that they would have received from these medications is so small,” Dr. Jacoby says.
Here’s what that means. The FDA allows levels of NDMA and NDEA that yield a 1 in 100,000 chance of developing cancer after 70 years of exposure. At the highest dose, the recalled valsartan has a 1 in 8,000 chance of causing cancer after four years of exposure.
While that doesn’t meet the FDA’s standards, a 1 in 8,000 increase in cancer risk is minimal relative to the baseline risk of developing cancer, which is 1 in 3.
If you have questions about your blood pressure medication, ask your doctor. But don’t stop taking it in the meantime.
“The medications are still safe and effective at controlling hypertension,” Dr. Jacoby says.
What If Your Medication Has Been Recalled?
Most people taking valsartan, losartan, or irbesartan are probably getting it from a safe manufacturer, Dr. Jacoby says. And even those who aren’t should be in the clear at this point because almost all of the affected products have already been removed from the market.
The only way to know for sure is to contact your pharmacy and ask if they’ve been getting your medication from a recalled manufacturer. If they have, just ask to be switched to a different manufacturer.
“For people who don’t want to take even that risk, there are several other medications that are in that class that have not been recalled,” Dr. Jacoby says. “I’ve been offering to switch my patients to a cousin medication. I have to change the dosage a little bit to get the comparable effect, but otherwise there’s nothing to worry about.”