On February 19th, 2013 the United Kingdom’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) posted a press release warning of dangerous heavy metal contamination in unlicensed Chinese herbal medications produced in Hong Kong and sold internationally online. The herbal compounds are reported to contain mercury and lead, which can lead to health side-effects ranging from dizziness to kidney and brain damage, reports the MHRA.

The MHRA, which is the UK counterpart to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), states that the following products: “Bak Foong Pills – used to relieve menstrual discomfort, Fung Shing Paij Tian-Ma Wan – used to relieve arthritis and headaches, and Shi Hu Ye Guang Wan and Nai Chang Ming Yan Pills – both used to improve vision in adults” are all contaminated with either lead or mercury.

Shi_Hu_Ye_Guang_Wan_on_MHRA

Tian Ma Toutong Wan
MHRA via MHRA (UK).

On February 19th, 2013 the United Kingdom’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) posted a press release warning of dangerous heavy metal contamination in unlicensed Chinese herbal medications produced in Hong Kong and sold internationally online. The herbal compounds are reported to contain mercury and lead, which can lead to health side-effects ranging from dizziness to kidney and brain damage, reports the MHRA.

The MHRA, which is the UK counterpart to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), states that the following products: “Bak Foong Pills – used to relieve menstrual discomfort, Fung Shing Paij Tian-Ma Wan – used to relieve arthritis and headaches, and Shi Hu Ye Guang Wan and Nai Chang Ming Yan Pills – both used to improve vision in adults” are all contaminated with either lead or mercury.

The MHRA continues, “The toxic effects of lead include abdominal pain, anaemia, changes in blood pressure, reproductive disorders such as miscarriage, weakness, concentration problems, weight loss, insomnia, dizziness, kidney and brain damage. The toxic effects of mercury include irritability, tremors, memory loss, insomnia, concentration problems, kidney and brain damage.”

While they report there is currently no evidence that these herbal remedies are available on the UK market, the MHRA expressed concern that the toxic herbal remedies could have been purchased online.

The MHRA points out that herbal medications require the same level of caution as regular prescription medications, since taking them can have an effect on one’s health. There are many safe herbal medications, but just because natural ingredients and extracts are listed on the contents, do not assume that they are safe for you to take. Consult with your doctor or pharmacist to verify that the herbal medication in question is right for you, and that it will not interact badly with other medication you are taking.

Currently the US FDA does not offer certification for dietary or herbal supplements. However, the MHRA does. Their Traditional Herbal Registration (THR) scheme certifies that medication registered with the THR meets their criteria for quality, safety, and traditional use.

In March 2011, the US FDA posted an import alert for field personnel concerning Chinese herbal medications. According to the alert, “Chinese herbal medications have a history, dating back to 1974, of containing strong prescription drugs.” The FDA alert lists several instances where these medications were found to contain prescription drugs or toxic metals that were nowhere listed on their ingredients lists.

As Richard Woodfield, Head of MHRA Herbal Policy commented, “This highlights the dangers of buying unlicensed herbal medicines and the risk to people’s health. These medicines contain toxic impurities and the side effects can be serious. “