Toxic levels of metals found in some ayurvedic remedies

Times Staff Writer

As more Americans turn to ayurvedic medicine, a new study has found that a number of the herbal supplements used in this ancient healing system from India may contain potentially harmful levels of lead, mercury and other heavy metals.

Researchers at Boston and Harvard universities studied more than 70 ayurvedic herbal products that were sold in stores in the greater Boston area. They found that 20% of the pills, powders and other products contained enough lead, mercury and arsenic to be toxic if used as directed. Seven of the 14 products that contained dangerous amounts of heavy metals were specifically recommended for pediatric use.

“Users of ayurvedic medicine manufactured in South Asia may be at risk for heavy metal toxicity and should consult their physician about testing,” said Dr. Robert B. Saper of the Boston University School of Medicine, the study’s lead author.


Although the study was relatively small, the researchers said the findings were consistent with previous studies of herbal medicines sold outside the United States.

Traditional medicines from indigenous healing traditions in China, Malaysia, Mexico and Africa also have been found to contain potentially dangerous levels of heavy metals, they said.

Ayurveda is a medical system founded roughly 5,000 years ago in India that uses combinations of herbs, purgatives, rubbing oils and other elements to treat disease. It is estimated that about 80% of India’s 1 billion population uses ayurvedic medicine. Saper’s study, published Dec. 15 in the Journal of the American Medical Assn., looked only at the safety ingredients of various ayurvedic remedies from South Asia. In 2003, Saper and his colleagues visited several dozen Indian markets, grocery stores and convenience stores in the Boston area. They purchased 70 medicines made by 27 companies, all but one based in India. The medicines were then sent to a laboratory for analysis.

The impetus for the study, Saper said, came from a colleague caring for an Indian patient who had been admitted to a Boston hospital with severe seizures. Doctors there found that he had a specific kind of anemia most often related to lead poisoning. His lead level was 89; the normal level for adults is 2, Saper said.

Although the man did not work in an industry with high lead exposure, he had been taking an ayurvedic herbal medicine product from India called guggulu. Doctors sent a sample to a lab, which reported that it contained very high levels of multiple toxic metals, including lead, mercury and arsenic.

Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council, an industry-sponsored group based in Austin, Texas, said ayurvedic medicine practitioners sometimes used various types of prepared or processed heavy metals as medicine. Although consumers should be cautious about possibly excessive levels of heavy metals in dietary supplements, Blumenthal said, none of the herbal medicine products on the list analyzed in the JAMA study probably would be found at most health food markets.

“These are not the herbal medicine products you would find at Whole Foods or Vons or Long’s Drugs,” he said. “These were not found in the office of your chiropractor or your acupuncturist."In the last two years, India has begun to tighten standards for supplement makers, said Dr. Shri K. Mishra, a professor of neurology and the coordinator of the integrative medicine program at USC’s Keck School of Medicine. For manufacturers of ayurvedic medicines, he said, the new rules require the avoidance of contaminants such as heavy metals.

Mishra said people should be consulting with ayurvedic practitioners, not self-medicating.

“There needs to be proper ayurvedic medicine,” he said. “But also, those who are using it need to be told properly what to take, rather than buying it from the grocery store.”

Saper said the larger message of the study is this: “Congress needs to enact stricter regulations on dietary supplements, including ayurvedic remedies.”