Heavy Metal Content of Ayurvedic Herbal Medicine Products

Heavy Metal Content of
Ayurvedic Herbal Medicine Products

This section is compiled by Frank M. Painter, D.C.
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FROM:   JAMA 2004 (Dec 15);   292 (23):   2868–2873

Robert B. Saper, MD, MPH; Stefanos N. Kales, MD, MPH;
Janet Paquin, PhD; Michael J. Burns, MD; David M. Eisenberg, MD;
Roger B. Davis, ScD; Russell S. Phillips, MD

Division for Research and Education in
Complementary and Integrative Medical Therapies,
Osher Institute,
Harvard Medical School,
Boston, USA.

It's long been known that certain Chinese herbal medicines contain potentially dangerous metals, but no one has determined whether Ayurvedic supplements pose the same problem. This Harvard study looked at Indian Ayurvedic herbs, and the news is not good. Researchers at Harvard bought 70 Ayurvedic products, nearly all of them made in India, and found that one in five contained potentially harmful levels of lead, mercury, and arsenic. Heavy metal toxicity can damage the nervous system, raise blood pressure, stunt cognitive development in children, and cause cancer.

Context:   Lead, mercury, and arsenic intoxication have been associated with the use of Ayurvedic herbal medicine product (HMPs).

Objectives:   To determine the prevalence and concentration of heavy metals in Ayurvedic HMPs manufactured in South Asia and sold in Boston-area stores and to compare estimated daily metal ingestion with regulatory standards.

Design and Setting   Systematic search strategy to identify all stores 20 miles or less from Boston City Hall that sold Ayurvedic HMPs from South Asia by searching online Yellow Pages using the categories markets, supermarkets, and convenience stores, and business names containing the word India, Indian cities, and Indian words. An online national directory of Indian grocery stores, a South Asian community business directory, and a newspaper were also searched. We visited each store and purchased all unique Ayurvedic HMPs between April 25 and October 24, 2003.

Main Outcome Measures:   Concentrations (µg/g) of lead, mercury, and arsenic in each HMP as measured by x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy. Estimates of daily metal ingestion for adults and children estimated using manufacturers’ dosage recommendations with comparisons to US Pharmacopeia and US Environmental Protection Agency regulatory standards.

Results:   A total of 14 (20%) of 70 HMPs (95% confidence interval, 11%-31%) contained heavy metals: lead (n = 13; median concentration, 40 µg/g; range, 5-37 000), mercury (n = 6; median concentration, 20 225 µg/g; range, 28-104 000), and/or arsenic (n = 6; median concentration, 430 µg/g; range, 37-8130). If taken as recommended by the manufacturers, each of these 14 could result in heavy metal intakes above published regulatory standards.

Conclusions:   One of 5 Ayurvedic HMPs produced in South Asia and available in Boston South Asian grocery stores contains potentially harmful levels of lead, mercury, and/or arsenic. Users of Ayurvedic medicine may be at risk for heavy metal toxicity, and testing of Ayurvedic HMPs for toxic heavy metals should be mandatory.

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