A Dose of Lead or Mercury With Your Medicine

Not enough of a fuss is being made over heavy metals in ayurvedic therapies.

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Are we being pummeled with so many warnings about heavy metals in the food and water that we're starting to tune out? Not all of the media reports about a new study that found heavy metals such as lead and mercury in a sizable sample of traditional ayurvedic medicines of India have been as cautionary (a polite word for alarming) as I would have liked them to be. I'm not a physician or toxicologist or biochemist, but I've written about alternative medicine and read a few studies over the years, and the bottom line of this one, in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, is about as subtle as a traffic cop's whistle.

Here it is: Out of 193 ayurvedic medicines purchased online—115 of them manufactured in the United States, 77 in India, and 1 in Canada—about 1 in 5 contained detectable amounts of lead, mercury, and arsenic. While some reporting has noted that the incidence was higher among U.S.-made products, the difference is trivial, 21.7 percent compared with 19.5 percent of medicines from India.

It is the amount of the stuff that should be making eyelids click wide open. In the medicines with measurable quantities of one or more of the three metals, the median amount was higher than that considered safe by at least one of several public-health standards. For products made in the United States, the median concentrations were too high but considerably lower for lead and mercury than the concentrations in India-made products.

What is scarier, however, is the range. Measured in micrograms of metal for every gram of product, the highest concentration of lead in a U.S. product was 20.5 micrograms—nothing to be proud of, but insignificant compared with a high of 25,950 mcg for an Indian product. Mercury contamination in U.S. products similarly topped out at 34.5 mcg against 28,500. The worst offenders by far were rasa shastra medicines, which purposely combine herbs with metals and minerals. Practitioners say the metals are "purified" and the products are safe and therapeutic if made and administered correctly. The results of the investigation suggest otherwise, and more than twice as many of the rasa shastra drugs in the study were contaminated as the other medicines.

Don't be reassured by a label pledging "good manufacturing practices," either; 75 percent of the contaminated products carried that claim. If such medicines are part of your regimen, check for membership in the American Herbal Products Association. Among the 46 products in the study from AHPA members, only three had detectable amounts of the metals.