Heavy metals in Ayurvedic medicines

On December 15, 2004  Dr Sapar and colleagues published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association stating that they found out that 20% of the Ayurvedic medicines purchased in Boston contained high concentrations of lead or arsenic or mercury . The article elicited strong reactions. Shortly, the Government of India of India notified that the labels of the medicines must disclose their metallic content.

Many news papers covered the topic. I wrote a PTI Feature titled ” Heavy metals in Ayurvedic medicines” on Januray 1, 2005. Saper’s finding was nothing new. Dr.K.S.V.Nambi and his colleagues from the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre  listed the lead content ranging from0.4to2,61,200 microgramme/gm in 14 Ayurvedic drugs in the Journal Energy Environment Monitor (13:2, 1997).

My PTI Feature is reproduced below. This was reprinted by The Daily Excelsior on January 9, 2005

PTI FEATURE               VOL  NO XXI (1)-2005                      January 1, 2005

HEALTH      PF-3/2005 

HEAVY METALS IN  AYURVEDIC MEDICINES

By K.S.Parthasarathy

Recently, Dr Robert B. Saper from the Boston University School of Medicine and his colleagues published a paper titled “Heavy metal content of certain Ayurvedic herbal medicine products” which showed that 14 out of  70 unique Ayurvedic herbal medicine products (HMPs) manufactured by 27 companies (26 Indian and one Pakistani) and bought from 30 stores within 20 miles of Boston City Hall contained lead, mercury and /or arsenic

They identified lead in 13 HMPs; mercury in six and arsenic in six. The drug manufacturers recommended half of these medicines for children. If any one consumes these medicines as per the manufacturer’s dosage recommendations, their intake will exceed regulatory standards. The researchers cautioned the users of Ayurvedic medicines about heavy metal toxicity and demanded that authorities must test these products for heavy metals mandatorily.

Scientists have detected heavy metals in Ayurvedic medicine in Australia, Croatia and UK besides USA and India. They have systematically documented their toxic effects On July 9, 2004, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received reports of 12 cases of lead poisoning associated with the use of Ayurvedic medicines. Generally, these patients took the medicine for arthritis or diabetes and in one case for menstrual health. One woman aged 31 years and a man aged 34 years took the drug to increase fertility! In 2002, E Ernst, University of Exeter reviewed many case reports.

It is nothing new. For more than a decade, leading hospitals in Mumbai, used to refer suspected metal poisoning cases to the Environmental Assessment Division (EAD), Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. During 1984-96, they identified Ayurvedic medicines as the source of lead in 29 out of the 95 suspected lead poisoning cases.

BARC doctors treated a 56-year-old man for a long time for various diseases. His condition did not improve. They suspected that he is suffering from lead poisoning. BARC scientists confirmed it when they found high concentration of lead in his blood. Previously he ate about 8 milligramme of lead daily through Ayurvedic tablets, bhasma and solution. Intake of lead through normal food is forty times lower. He stopped the Ayurvedic medication; the level of lead in his blood lowered. His life was saved.

A 48-year-old female patient referred to BARC by a leading hospital had a lead concentration of four times the normal in her blood. She was in coma. She was a diabetic and was taking an ayurvedic drug. A sample of this drug contained 37,770.4 microgramme/gm of lead. She recovered fully after appropriate therapy.

Dr.K.S.V.Nambi and his colleagues from BARC listed the lead content ranging from0.4to2,61,200 microgramme/gm in 14 Ayurvedic drugs in the Journal Energy Environment Monitor (13:2, 1997).

Over the past several years, researchers at the Indian Institute of Environmental Medicine, Mumbai have been measuring routinely the lead content in blood samples of many patients referred to them. In many cases,they identified Ayurvedic medicine as the source of lead poisoning.

The issue is serious. It merits deft handling. Such formulations need close scientific study. Pharmaceutical companies may debunk Ayurveda. May be they are not transparent enough in their business practices. But our approach to the issue should not be shortsighted.

News paper headlines and editorials such as “Government rubbishes US report on dangers of Ayurveda”, “American Medical Association trains its guns on herbal medicines”, “This is a conspiracy by big pharma companies”, on this topic are worrisome. Some fear that the news will have an impact on tourism as substantial numbers of tourists come for Ayurvedic treatment; others have concerns on export earnings from drugs. These are important.  So is  the health of our own citizens?

Standardizing Ayurvedic medicines is a daunting task. Specialists like Dr M.S.Kamath, Additional Professor and Head, Department of Ayurveda, Kasturba Medical College, Manipal argue that metals and minerals used in Ayurveda undergo certain purification process and used in the form of bhasmas. In an interview published in a Johannesburg newspaper, Dr Rajen Coopan, an Ayurvedic physician from South Africa stated that the “bhasmas acted as catalysts by unlocking the healing properties of the herbal ingredients”…”All bhasmas were subjected to a stringent 18 step refinement and purification process that removed the toxicity from the metals”. Is it possible to verify such claims by animal studies?

The Union Health Ministry has promptly set up a high-level committee to study the JAMA report. The panel must also examine the case reports on the toxicity of Ayurvedic drugs sold in the Indian market to arrive at appropriate recommendations.

Recently I asked Ayurvedic firms whether they add heavy metals intentionally in some Ayurvedic medicines or they reach the final product inadvertently during manufacture. Do these metals have curative properties? I asked them how they will reassure a patient who asks them about the presence of toxic metals in quantities above acceptable limits in Ayurvedic medicines. Do the professional associations have a stand on these issues? Do they think that the fear of toxic metals in drugs will hurt their business especially export? I also wanted to know whether they believe that pharmaceutical companies and allopathic practioners deliberately project the issue as they have a vested interest in debunking Ayurvedic form of treatment. I did not receive any response from them so far.

I sent these questions to the US National Ayurvedic Medical Association (NAMA) and the Foundation for Indian System of Medicine in the Netherlands.  J. Rioux, Secretary, NAMA replied thus: “The issues you raise are complex and at this point NAMA is not taking an official stance on the presence of heavy metals in Ayurvedic drugs.  I’m sorry that we cannot answer your questions in more detail, but as a professional association we can simply say that our constituency is broad and may have varied opinions on the subject.  The discussion will be ongoing as Ayurveda continues to professionalize in the United States”.

I feel that the JAMA paper provided a much needed wake-up call. This awareness must goad us on to action. We must verify the claims of harmlessness of bhasmas etc scientifically. This is essential to preserve the traditional merits of Ayurveda. Unscrupulous vendors must not be allowed to play with the life of thousands of our compatriots.

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About ksparthasarathy

I am a former Secretary of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. I am a former Raja Ramanna Fellow in the Department of Atomic Energy. Free lance journalism is my hobby
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