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15 December 2004
Caution Urged On Indian Herbal Products

Researchers analysing Ayurvedic herbal medicine products have found that 20 percent contained metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic at levels that could be toxic if taken as directed.

Around 80 percent of India's population uses Ayurveda, a medical system that originated in India more than 2000 years ago and greatly relies on herbal medicine products. In recent times, the popularity of Ayurvedic herbal products in Western countries has increased. Because Ayurvedic products are marketed as dietary supplements, they are regulated under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which does not require proof of safety or efficacy prior to marketing. Recent reports of lead poisoning associated with taking Ayurvedic herbal products were the catalyst for the current study, appearing in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Robert B. Saper, of the Boston University School of Medicine, and colleagues examined Ayurvedic products manufactured in South Asia. The researchers purchased 70 different Ayurvedic products and concentrations of lead, mercury and arsenic were measured in the samples.

The researchers found that 20 percent of the products contained lead, mercury and/or arsenic, and that if taken as recommended by the manufacturer, each of these could result in heavy metal intake above the published regulatory standards. Additionally, half of the products containing potentially toxic heavy metals were recommended for children.

The researchers warned that the findings may have important public health, clinical, and policy implications. "Public health and community organizations should consider issuing advisories to current or previous Ayurvedic herbal product users, encouraging them to consult their physicians about heavy metal screening. Our findings support calls for reform of DSHEA that would require mandatory testing of all imported dietary supplements for toxic heavy metals," conclude the researchers.

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