Some Alternative Medicines Native to India May Cause Lead Poisoning

 

A woman with stomach pains went to an emergency room for treatment. The woman complained of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea as well. She had a history of diabetes. She was taking two prescription medicines, insulin and metformin, at home to control her diabetes. After she was examined by a doctor, blood tests were done. The doctor found that the woman had a very low red blood cell count and an unusually high level of lead in her blood.

The doctor then discovered that the woman was also taking an alternative medicine, Jambrulin, which is believed to help control blood sugar. The woman had been taking two pills twice a day for 6 weeks. An analysis of the pills’ contents showed that they contained lead. Although the woman had stopped taking the alternative medicine, the amount of lead in her system had accumulated and was causing her symptoms. If left untreated, the lead in her system could have caused serious harm.

Lead and mercury can damage the brain, nervous system, reproductive system, kidneys, and other parts of the body. Mercury can also cause birth defects. Children and pregnant women who use products containing lead or mercury are especially at risk. The woman in this case was given a medicine that binds with the lead and removes it from the body.

Jambrulin is a traditional ayurvedic medicine, which is an alternative medicine that originated in India. Ayurvedic medicine involves the use of products such as spices, herbs, vitamins, proteins, minerals, and metals (e.g., mercury, lead, iron, zinc). In this case, the woman had purchased the product during a visit to India, but it is also commonly sold on the Internet and is available in some US stores that sell Indian or South Asian products.

mortar2Ayurvedic products, and many other alternative medicine products, do not undergo review by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This means that their safety, quality, and effectiveness cannot be assured by FDA. According to the principles of ayurvedic medicine, heavy metals such as lead, mercury, iron, and zinc, are used because of their reputed therapeutic properties. Indian advocates of ayurvedic medicines say the metals used in products such as Jambrulin are purified and rendered harmless. However, improper manufacturing processes may result in dangerously high levels of heavy metals remaining in the final product.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Saper RB, Phillips RS, Sehgal A, et al. Lead, mercury, and arsenic in US- and Indian-manufactured ayurvedic medicines sold via the Internet. JAMA. 2008;300(8):915-23) found that one out of five US-manufactured and Indian-manufactured ayurvedic products bought on the Internet contained lead, mercury, or arsenic at levels that exceeded the acceptable daily metal intake. The researchers concluded that several Indian-manufactured products could result in lead and/or mercury ingestions 100 to 100,000 times greater than acceptable limits. Thus, FDA (www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm050798.htm), Health Canada (www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ahc-asc/media/advisories-avis/_2006/200689-eng.php), and the European Union (www.deccanherald.com/content/134447/ayurvedic-medicines-face-eu-ban.html) contend that the presence of metals in some ayurvedic products makes them potentially harmful.

Consumers should be aware that some alternative products might contain lead or mercury even if they are not listed as ingredients. A Lead Poisoning Prevention Program promoted by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (www.nyc.gov/html/doh/html/lead/lead-herbalmed-in.shtml#q2) has identified the following alternative medicines that are currently known to contain unacceptable levels of lead or mercury:

  • Jambrulin, made by Unjha Ayur-vedic Pharmacy. Used for diabetes and blood sugar control.
  • Mahayogaraj Guggulu Enriched with Silver, made by Baidyanath. Used for rheumatoid arthritis pain.
  • Lakshmivilash Ras (Nardiya), made by Baidyanath. Used for chronic fever, cold, and cough.
  • Maha Sudarshan, made by Arya Aushadhi Pharmaceutical Works. Used for flu and body aches.

To be safe, consumers should avoid taking these products.

Quick Safety Tips

mortar3Follow these guidelines to be safe when taking alternative medicines, which include ayurvedic, homeopathic, naturopathic, and herbal medicines.

Keep a current list of all the medicines you are taking. Your list should include prescription and over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, minerals, herbals, and alternative medicines. Be sure to share your updated list with your healthcare providers at every visit.

Learn about alternative medicines. Talk to your doctor before taking any alternative medicine. Learn about the benefits as well as the risks and side effects. While most alternative medicines may be safe to use, they can cause problems if too much is taken, if used too long, or if taken with other medicines. Your doctor or pharmacist will be able to tell if it is safe to take these products with other medicines.

Report use. Tell your doctors, nurses, and pharmacists about alternative medicines you take, even if you are well. It may change the choice of a medicine your doctor prescribes for you, and allows them to give you advice on which alternative medicines to stop while taking other medicines they prescribe. If you become sick, telling your doctor about alternative medicines you take might help to determine the cause of your illness.

mortar4See a doctor. Taking an alternative medicine to treat chronic conditions and ongoing symptoms like pain, fatigue, or a persistent rash may seem like a good idea. But don't let it keep you from seeking medical help. Alter-native medicines may help relieve symptoms but not cure the illness. A delay in medical treatment could have serious consequences.

Purchase foreign products with caution. Use caution when purchasing alternative medicines from foreign countries or over the Internet. If you buy your medicines over the Internet, visit the FDA website at www.fda.gov/buyonline for more information. This website has consumer tips for buying medicines safely over the Internet. Discuss questions or concerns you may have with your doctor or pharmacist before you purchase the product.

Created on September 16, 2011

Medication Safety Alerts

FDA Safety Alerts

Show Your Support!

ISMP needs your help to continue our life saving work