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Ayurveda under scanner

Toxic metals have been found in Ayurvedic medicine yet again, with tests showing that one-fifth of US and Indian-manufactured ayurvedic medicines bought over the Internet have high levels of lead, mercury and arsenic, writes Sanchita Sharma. See graph.

health and fitness Updated: Aug 31, 2008 01:26 IST
Sanchita Sharma

Toxic metals have been found in Ayurvedic medicine yet again, with tests showing that one-fifth of US and Indian-manufactured ayurvedic medicines bought over the Internet have high levels of lead, mercury and arsenic.

Heavy metals accumulate in the body and cause health problems ranging from dizziness and muscle cramps to chronic arthritis and mental retardation.The study has been published in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA). For the study, 673 products were identified on 25 websites, of which 230 were randomly selected and 193 received and analysed. “Heavy metals were found in 20.7 per cent of the medicines, with toxicity being a higher 21.7 per cent in US-made products as compared with 19.5 per cent in Indian ones,” says lead researcher Dr Robert B. Saper, assistant professor of family medicine at Boston University School of Medicine.

Are Ayurvedic drugs made in India as safe as their allopathic counterparts that undergo safety and efficacy trials before getting approved for use? They are safe but could be a lot safer, says Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss.

“The trouble is that Ayurvedic formulations are often not sold in the drugs category, but in the food products/food supplement category. Since the safety standards of ingredients are different in the food and drug category, the Department of Ayush under the health ministry has set permissible standards for potentially harmful ingredients in Ayurvedic drugs,” says Ramadoss.

Experts say that traces of heavy metals are an integral part of many ayurvedic formulations. “These are traditional formulations that have been in use for centuries and cannot be changed at will. Millions of people have used these drugs safely and benefited from them. What we need to do now is to test these drugs using modern scientific methods and re-establish their safety and effectiveness,” says Dr Ashish Kumar, assistant professor, the department of haepatology, Institute of Liver & Biliary Sciences, New Delhi.

“Assuming that traditional medicine is safe is wrong. They may cause side effects and should be taken on prescription,” says Dr Kumar.

Quality issues have long plagued traditional systems of medicine such as ayurveda, unani and homeopathy. Two years ago, the US and Canada took ayurvedic and unani medicines off stores and banned their further import after dangerously high levels of heavy metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic were found in formulations made in India. Again, in May 2008, Health Canada announced that some ayurvedic drugs had dangerous amounts of heavy metals.

In the past, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has also warned of unregulated and often unsafe use of alternative medicines. Though many of the treatments have scientifically recognised benefits, they need to be treated with the same precautions as other forms of medicine, it cautioned.

In India, the department of Ayush is working overtime to ensure that traditional, medicines are made as safe as possible. “We want to make traditional drugs as safe as their allopathic counterparts that undergo safety and efficacy trials before getting approved for use,” says Dr Mohammed Khalid Siddiqui, Director, Central Council for Research in Unani Medicine. Over 5,500 manufacturers make alternative medicines in India.

“Standardisation of formulations, introduction of good manufacturing practices, scientific validation of treatments and quality assurance is being done. We hope it will make traditional medicines more popular than allopathic medicines,” he adds.