Pills Containing Heavy Metal Toxins Found in Circulation in China

Chrome Alum Crystals

Chrome Alum Crystals
by Paul's La via Flickr.

AFP has reported that Chinese authorities have detained 22 people accused of making drug capsules using chromium, a toxic metal that can cause kidney, liver, and blood cell damage.  13 Chinese manufactured medications have been removed from domestic circulation due to excessive chromium levels.

Zhejiang provincial authorities suspect the detainees made capsules using industrial gelatin made from discarded leather, reported Xinhua News. Chromium, also known as chrome alum, is a common ingredient in leather tanning.  

Half of the workers worked for capsule makers in Xinchang county, a major production base for pharmaceutical manufacturing, according to Xinhua. However, the industrial gelatin used in the capslues came form other factories in Hebei province in the north of China and the Jiangxi province in eastern China.

The manager of the Xueyang Glair Gelatin Factory, Song Xunjie, in Hebei, was also arrested and is suspected of arson in order to destroy evidence related to the case. Xueyang Glair Gelatin Factory is reported to supply gelatin to companies throughout China.  

The Chinese State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) has suspected sales of thirteen types of medications confirmed to have excessive levels of chromium, including 11 traditional Chinese herbal remedies and two antibiotics, reports the Wall Street Journal. All the medications were produced domestically by companies that purchased capsules from small manufacturers in Zhejiang province.

China's SFDA is investigating and has said that the Chinese Pharmacopeia has clear standards for ingestible capsules, and that 9 laboratories were implicated in the contamination, reports the Beijing Morning News.

The medications were found to contain levels of chromium 90 times above safety standards, reports Want China Times.

"The chromium contained in the capsules is allegedly trivalent chromium, which is carcinogenic," said Cai Hong, secretary-general of the China National Pharmaceutical Packaging Association. The capsules were made from industrial gelatin, instead of edible gelatin. Cai said the excessive chromium levels were the result of low-quality gelatin used in production, reports Want China Times.

Chromium(III) salts, notably chrome alum and chromium(III) sulfate are used in tanning leather and in the gelatin emulsions in photographic film. Wikipedia reports that studies have indicated that high concentrations of chromium can lead to DNA damage, and that acute oral toxicity ranges between 1.5 and 3.5 mg/kg.  

Edible capsules cost twice as much to produce as those made from industrial materials, reports Want China Times, and the inedible base ingredient, industrial gelatin, is available at 1/5 to 1/6 the cost of edible gelatin.

Learn more about the other toxins found in counterfeit medicines.

 By S. Imber

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