Structural characterization of contaminants found in commercial preparations of melatonin: similarities to case-related compounds from L-tryptophan associated with eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome

Chem Res Toxicol. 1998 Mar;11(3):234-40. doi: 10.1021/tx970202h.


On-line HPLC/electrospray ionization-tandem mass spectrometry (LC/ESI-MS/MS) in conjunction with NMR has been successfully employed to identify and structurally characterize seven contaminants found in three different commercial preparations of melatonin. Six of these contaminants were identified as analogues of impurities found in contaminated L-tryptophan (an over-the-counter dietary supplement) associated with the eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome (EMS) epidemic that occurred in the United States during 1989. In particular, our studies identified two compounds with MH+ = 249 to be hydroxymelatonin isomers. Four other compounds with MH+ = 477 were identified as melatonin-formaldehyde condensation products. These compounds are structural analogues of L-tryptophan contaminants, namely, 'peak C' and 'peak E' that were previously implicated as etiological agents causing EMS. It has been reported that melatonin consumption has resulted in eosinophilia in some humans taking high doses of this supplement. Although there has not been a major outbreak of EMS-like symptoms from consumption of melatonin, this study clearly suggests that tighter control and regulation of nutritional supplements sold and used as drugs is necessary.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Chromatography, High Pressure Liquid
  • Disease Outbreaks
  • Drug Contamination*
  • Eosinophilia-Myalgia Syndrome / chemically induced
  • Eosinophilia-Myalgia Syndrome / epidemiology
  • Formaldehyde / chemistry
  • Humans
  • Mass Spectrometry
  • Melatonin / chemistry*
  • Molecular Structure
  • Tryptophan / adverse effects
  • Tryptophan / chemistry*
  • United States / epidemiology


  • Formaldehyde
  • Tryptophan
  • Melatonin