Top Poisons Found in Counterfeit Drugs

Counterfeit drugs can pose serious safety and public health concerns. One reason is that they may contain inactive or incorrect ingredients, or even dangerous, potentially lethal, substances. Fake medications sold online have been made from everything from highway paint, rat poison, arsenic and floor wax. Unsuspecting consumers can be exposed to counterfeit drugs by buying from illicit, unlicensed drug sellers on the internet.

The following are the most common types of poison that investigators have found in counterfeit medications:

1. Hazardous items, such as rat poison, boric acid, antifreeze, PCBs and benzopyrenes: These poisons can cause kidney damage and failure, cancer, developmental defects, and death. Interpol reported that “In Ecuador, boric acid was found as an ingredient in fake medication while sheet rock and rat poison were included in Columbia. Methamphetamine was also found in fake medication in Hungary, and commercial-grade wall paint was used to color fake pills in Montreal. Antifreeze was found in cough syrups and other common drugs, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of adults and children in Panama, Haiti, Nigeria and Guanzhou.”

2. Household items, such as floor wax, brick dust, house paint, road paint, paint thinner: These can cause vomiting, abdominal pain, dizziness, blurred vision, respiratory difficulty, nervous system disruption, coma, death.

Pat Ford, a former FBI agent reported that “Investigators have found household items in counterfeit medications. Floor wax gives a nice sheen to mimic an enteric coating; brick dust and paints fake the proper color of pills, and sheet rock can be made into pills.”

3. Drugs you didn’t ask for: According to The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a number of people who placed orders over the Internet for Ambien, Xanax, Lexapro and Ativan received products containing what was identified as “foreign versions of Haldol (haloperidol), a powerful anti-psychotic drug. As a result, these customers needed emergency medical treatment for symptoms such as difficulty in breathing, muscle spasms, and muscle stiffness—all problems that can occur with haloperidol.”

Also people who thought they were ingesting a popular, FDA approved weight-loss drug, Alli, purchased online found instead they were ingesting a fake with dangerous levels of sibutramine, with serious consequences, including stroke.

4. No Drugs at All: Even if a medication contains no poisons or wrong medications, a potentially life-saving medication without an active ingredient will cause harm, and potentially death.

Medications with no active ingredients, or insufficient quantities, can harm you by not correcting your illness. In recent cases, fake medicines with no drugs at all in them have had an impact on cancer patients and asthmatics with dire consequences.

Check out The Partnership for Safe Medicines website for an interactive compendium of “Hidden Poisons in Counterfeit Medications”.

If you are unsure whether your prescription is genuine or not, visit WebMD online to look up the drug’s description and appearance. Simply look up an image of the prescription drug in question, and compare it to what you have. If they do not look the same, do not take them, as they may be harmful to your health. In addition, use the LegitScript pharmacy-checker tool and search for a pharmacy website on to see if it’s safe before you buy.


The Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies (CSIP) and our 13 member companies have the shared goal of helping address the growing problem of consumer access to illegitimate pharmaceutical products on the Internet. Continue to read this blog for updates on CSIP’s education, enforcement and information-sharing efforts.