A company run by a senior UKIP politician is selling what appears to be industrial-strength bleach as a health product, with instructions for users to put a few drops of it in drinks or use it with water as mouthwash.
Andrew Haigh, who was appointed UKIP’s national organiser for Wales in 2015, has, according to the website of his company Vitalox, been supplying “Aerobic Oxygen” since 1998. Its leaflet describes it as “good for you” and “the healthier element” – it says it "harness[es] the powerful healing properties of oxygen for use within the body".
However, a chemist who tested the product told BuzzFeed News it’s “reasonable to say it’s sodium chlorite or something similar”, based on the tests he carried out. Sodium chlorite is a powerful corrosive alkali used in several industrial processes, including paper-bleaching.
The Food Standards Agency has in the past warned that sodium chlorite is being sold as a treatment for various diseases under the name Miracle Mineral Solution or MMS, which it described as “equivalent to industrial-strength bleach”.
In 2015, Haigh also ran for the seat of Aberconwy for UKIP, where he came fourth, with 11% of the vote, behind the winner, Tory Guto Bebb.
On Vitalox’s website, Aerobic Oxygen is described as “the basic foundation of good health – healthy cells”. The company recommends that you consume 60 drops of Aerobic Oxygen per day in “any cold drink”, or use it with toothpaste (“2-3 drops on your toothbrush to inhibit disease bacteria”) or as mouthwash (“Add 10 drops to a small amount of water”).
The website also contains an article entitled “Cancer and Oxygen”, a transcription of a speech by Otto Warburg, who won the Nobel for physiology in 1931. The speech is not about Aerobic Oxygen but about the element oxygen, and says that to “prevent cancer it is therefore proposed first to keep the speed of the blood stream so high that the venous blood still contains sufficient oxygen”.
Another article on the site says that cellulite is caused “when fat cells are starved of oxygen”.
BuzzFeed News bought a bottle of Aerobic Oxygen from the Vitalox site. The bottle cost £22 for 60ml – about the equivalent of a double shot of spirits. On its label it said it contained “stabilised negative ions of oxygen”, and its ingredients were listed as “purified ionised water, sodium chloride 1.6 micrograms per serving, Stabilised Oxygen molecules”.
Sodium chloride is common salt, and oxygen is found dissolved in all water, so this ingredients list suggests that it’s just ordinary salty water. However, the bottle also says “do not place directly on skin” and “keep out of reach of children”. BuzzFeed News had the substance tested by chemists at King’s College London (KCL).
Dr Dan Cornwell of KCL tested the pH of the substance. It showed up as about pH 12 or 14. On the pH scale, 7 is neutral – distilled water would be pH 7 – while 0 is highly acidic and 14 is highly alkaline. Household bleaches such as sodium hypochlorite commonly have a pH of 11 or 12. If Aerobic Oxygen was salty water, as the ingredients list claimed, it would be roughly neutral.
Cornwell’s colleagues at KCL also ran the substance through a machine called a mass spectrometer. It breaks down substances into their component elements by heating them to about 8,000°C. It found that it had large amounts of sodium, and significant quantities of chlorine and potassium. That is consistent with the liquid containing salt, but it is also consistent with it containing a bleaching agent such as sodium chlorite or sodium hypochlorite.
Cornwell then mixed a small amount of the liquid with a mixture of potassium iodide and hydrochloric acid. Sodium chloride – salt, or NaCl – would not react with that mixture; but a bleach-like compound such as sodium chlorite (NaClO2) would bring the iodine out, making the liquid go brown. The liquid immediately went brown.
This, Cornwell told BuzzFeed News, was not proof that the substance was sodium chlorite, but it was definitely some powerful bleach-like alkali, consisting mainly of sodium and chlorine in water.
“The two main conclusions I can draw is that the Vitalox solution has a pH of about 13, putting it in the same region as concentrated household bleach – which contains sodium hypochlorite and sodium hydroxide – or an oven cleaner,” he said. “And when it combined with the potassium iodide it produced iodine, which shows that there’s a strong oxidising reaction.
“I’m not 100% sure of the nature of the oxidising agent, but since it has a basic pH and gave a positive result with the iodine test it’s reasonable to say it’s probably sodium chlorite or something similar.”
David Colquhoun, a professor of pharmacology at University College London, told BuzzFeed News that even taking Vitalox’s claims at face value, there is no reason to think it is good for you. “You don’t absorb oxygen through your stomach,” he said. “There’s not the slightest reason to think it works for anything.”
However, he said, if the chemical tests are correct and it is a powerful bleach similar to MMS, “it would be madness to drink it”. “A few drops in a glass of water probably won’t actually kill you,” he said, “but that’s a slim marketing claim.”
MMS has been sold as a treatment for autism, HIV, cancer, and other conditions, being used either orally or as an enema, and has been linked with at least one death.
The Food Standards Agency says that “when taken as directed [MMS] could cause severe nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea, potentially leading to dehydration and reduced blood pressure”, adding: “If the solution is diluted less than instructed, it could cause damage to the gut and red blood cells, potentially resulting in respiratory failure.” It says MMS and similar, more dilute, substances should be avoided.
Aerobic Oxygen’s own website says: “If you are taking too much Aerobic Oxygen (detoxifying too fast), your body will tell you with an upset stomach, loose bowels or possibly headaches. This is not dangerous, just uncomfortable. Listen to your body; start at a lower dose and gradually increase.”
UKIP Wales entered a period of crisis following the 2016 Welsh assembly elections, in which it gained six seats in the devolved assembly. Since then the party’s regional leader Nathan Gill has been deposed and replaced with former Conservative Neil Hamilton, and two assembly members have defected.
BuzzFeed News passed its findings on to the Food Standards Agency, which said in a statement: "The FSA has issued advice that sodium chlorite solutions are not safe and should not be sold for human consumption." It said its National Food Crimes Unit was reviewing the information and may "pursue further action" if necessary.
BuzzFeed News has contacted Andrew Haigh for comment.
David Colquhoun is a professor of pharmacology at University College London. A previous version of this article misstated his position.