Lead Poisoning Associated with Traditional Medicines

in environment, medicine, biology

It is not pleasant to discover that some medicines may contain poison.  Lead has been implicated in poisoning associated with lead containing paint, lead-contaminated dust in older buildings, and contaminated water and soil; but many people may not know that some medicines may also contain lead.

As observed by the U.S. Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC), lead has been found in some traditional (folk) medicines used by East Indian, Indian, Middle Eastern, West Asian, and Hispanic cultures.  Lead and other heavy metals are added to certain folk medicines on purpose because these metals are thought to be useful in treating some ailments. CDC adds: “lead poisoning from folk remedies can cause illness and even death”. Lead poisoning is a medical condition often called plumbism, caused by increased levels of the element lead in the body.

Lately there is a resurgence in the use of traditional medicinal products partly due to their promotion by various governments in the form of alternative medicine and partly due to the fact that those products are regulated less by various governmental agencies.

 Most of the traditional medical practices like the Ayurveda, and Chinese medicine employ plant products in the treatment of various human ailments. Interestingly, at least some of those plant extracts proved their reputation in modern methods of testing using in vitro cell cultures and experimental animals. However, there is a downside, for some reason the belief that heavy metals have medicinal properties spread its roots to the traditional therapies of different regions of the ancient world and heavy metals have become part of some ancient drug formulations. Although it is not entirely clear if these metallic salts are directly added to the drug formulations, the heavy metal for example, the lead content of some traditional drugs is scientifically well- documented. According to the World Health Organization, “improper manufacturing processes may result in dangerously high levels of heavy metals remaining in the final product.”   

Apart from this, Ayurveda, an ancient medical practice with its roots in India also incorporates ashes (called Bhashma in Sanskrit) of various plants in some of their formulations. The ash is formed when organic matter is completely incinerated and it mainly contains metal oxides, in a concentrated form. The ash seems to be the source of lead in the Ayurvedic products. For example, when acquired from three different suppliers Ashvagandha formulations, advocated to combat stress in Ayurveda, came in three different colors, bright yellow, grey, and buff white. It is my personal experience with the grey product that alerted me for an inquiry into the symptoms of lead poisoning. However, not all Ayurvedic medicines contain ash.

The acute symptoms of lead poisoning typically include extreme discomfort in the stomach followed by diarrhea, and pain in the joints and muscles. Activation and increased expression of liver enzymes may be responsible for some of these symptoms. If left untreated extreme forms of lead poisoning can cause organ failure and death.  Reports of lead poisoning from traditional Eastern medicines came from USA, Australia, New Zealand, India, and Hongkong as published in scientific journals. Some formulations contained as high as 30% by weight of these powders and pills.

These findings and observations do not undermine the potential of traditional medicine.  This article also does not imply that all traditional medical formulations have lead or they are dangerous. In fact there is a major effort by pharmaceuticals and researchers to identify biologically active chemical compounds in the plant materials used in these potent formulations. Nevertheless, according to the U.S. CDC, approximately 250,000 U.S. children aged 1-5 years have blood lead levels greater than 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, the level at which CDC recommends public health actions be initiated. Nearly every system in the body may be affected by lead poisoning.

The heavy metals like lead and mercury are present in ultra low quantities in nature and animal bodies have developed no specific mechanism to eliminate them. Therefore, after reaching the blood stream lead stays in the body for a long time. Organic chemicals like ethylene diamine tetraacidic acid (EDTA), however, form complexes with lead and other metal ions and help drag them into the urine. Physicians typically use a similar method, also called “chelation therapy,” for the elimination of lead from the body.

The United States and other developed countries made big strides in reducing human exposure to lead by such measures as limiting lead in the gasoline, and banning lead based paints, etc. It is an irony that ancient medical practices can antagonize that success. In India drug stores selling traditional medicines are as busy as the allopathic medical stores in selling their products (sold countertop). A number of the customers are not aware of lead poisoning. It is time various governments developed a system to monitor and control heavy metal content of the traditional drug formulations.

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 Dr Bassa Babu is a PhD in Biochemistry living in San Diego, California.

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