Approximately one in five Indian herbal medicines sold over the Internet contains dangerously high levels of arsenic, lead or mercury, according to a study conducted by researchers from Boston University and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Traditional Indian herbal medicine, known as Ayurvedic medicine, has become increasingly popular in the Western world over the last few years. Research has suggested that traditional Indian herbal techniques can be helpful in treating health problems including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.
"But the key thing is we need to separate out what's helpful and ... what needs to be looked at and perhaps set aside," lead researcher Robert Saper said. "Our first priority must be the safety of the public. Herbs and supplements with high levels of lead, mercury and arsenic should not be available for sale on the Internet or elsewhere."
Saper and colleagues conducted an Internet search for Ayurvedic medicines, and purchased a random 230 out of the 673 products that turned up. They ended up receiving 193 of these, which they analyzed for levels of toxic metals.
The researchers found that 20.7 percent of the medicines tested contained toxic metals, and every one of these contained at least one such metal in quantities higher than the maximum recommended daily intake - in some cases, up to 10,000 times higher.
One tradition within Ayurvedic medicine, known as "rasa shastra," involves mixing herbs with metals, minerals and gems. Rasa shastra medicines were more than 100 percent more likely to contain toxic metals than medicines with herbs alone, and also tended to have higher concentrations of mercury and lead. While products manufactured in the United States and India were equally likely to contain toxic metals - 21.7 percent and 19.5 percent, respectively - 95 percent of the potentially toxic products were purchased from U.S. Web sites.
By David Gutierrez