On August 20, Britain's Medicines and Health Care Products Regulatory Agency issued a press release warning that extreme caution should be used with a number of traditional Chinese medicines (TCM) because they could contain dangerously high levels of toxins, including lead, mercury and arsenic.
The release said the drugs are not authorized for sale in Britain, but can be bought on the Internet. "People are warned to exercise extreme caution when buying unlicensed medicines as they have not been assessed for safety and quality, and standards can vary widely," it says.
The TCMs named include Niuhuang Jiedu Pian for the treatment of tonsillitis, toothaches and other maladies; Bak Foong Pills, often used for the treatment of menstrual pain; and Fabao, used to treat baldness.
In early August, Hong Kong authorities ordered the recall of Bak Foong Pills because the city's health authorities found they exceeded acceptable levels of lead by two times and Fabao because it surpassed mercury levels by 11 times. In July, the Swedish National Food Agency also found extremely high levels of arsenic in Niuhuang Jiedu Pian and warned other European Union countries that it constitutes a serious health risk.
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Richard Woodfield, the British regulatory agency's head of policy for herbal medicines, said in the press release: "The adulteration of traditional Chinese medicines with heavy metals is a significant international problem and can pose a serious risk to public health." He urged the public to choose herbal medicines that meet quality and safety standards, and have Britain's Traditional Herbal Registration certificate on their packaging.
Since the beginning of this year, TCMs have repeatedly been questioned, mainly by foreign official and private drug testing organizations. Apart from being potentially toxic, another common concern is that the herbal remedies often contain pesticide residue.
Two Greenpeace reports issued on July 1 said that out of the 36 kinds of frequently used Chinese herbal products tested in Germany, France, Britain, the Netherlands, Italy, the United States and Canada, pesticide residues were detected in all but one of the products. Among those cited were nine of China's leading drug brands, such as Tong Ren Tang and Yunnan Baiyao.
The industry's reaction toward safety issues has been the same for years: avoidance. No company responded to the Greenpeace reports. A public relations official at one the companies cited told Caixin that his peers all have a standard answer to questions over product safety: "We are in line with national standards. EU standards do not apply to China domestically." He said pesticide residues are found not only in TCM products, but also in fruits and vegetables.
"We dare not say anything (in public), otherwise we can easily become a target," the PR source said.