Heavy metals, pharmaceuticals and endangered species DNA found in traditional Chinese medicines, research finds – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Some traditional Chinese medicines are laced with pharmaceuticals, heavy metals and even endangered animals, new research has revealed.

Traditional Chinese medicines (TCMs) have long been thought by some as a more natural, herbal approach to curing ailments.

But now a study carried out by Curtin University, Murdoch University and the University of Adelaide has found 90 per cent of 26 widely available medicines tested were not fit for human consumption.

Key points:

  • Study found 90pc of 26 widely available medicines not fit for human consumption
  • Half contained illegal substances, including toxic metals, prescription medication, stimulants
  • Some contained arsenic, lead, Viagra, rat poison and DNA of endangered species
  • Researcher says ‘honour system’ of TGA listing being exploited

Half contained illegal substances, including toxic metals, prescription medications, stimulants and animal DNA, none of which were listed on the product’s label.

TCMs are a multi-billion-dollar industry and it is estimated 50 per cent of Australians have used alternative therapies at some point.

Researchers employed a new method involving highly sensitive DNA sequencing, toxicology and heavy metal testing to assess the composition of the TCMs.

“If we don’t know what’s in them, it’s very difficult to predict the interactions, … that’s obviously of great concern if they are been given to children, or pregnant women, the potential outcomes there are very serious.

Murdoch University biochemist Dr Garth Maker

The study does not disclose the brands of medicines checked, but confirmed they were purchased in Adelaide and available for sale in retailers and markets nationally.

Curtin University lead researcher Professor Michael Bunce said the results were shocking.

“Half of them have illegal ingredients in them, we’ve determined from DNA, half of them have got pharmaceuticals added to them that are clearly synthetic in nature and have not come from natural compounds,” he said.

“Another proportion of them have heavy metals beyond the safe ingestion recommendations … 90 per cent of them are really not fit for human consumption.”

Murdoch University biochemist Dr Garth Maker said contamination by undisclosed pharmaceuticals was a health concern.

He said over-the-counter drugs like paracetamol and ibuprofen were found but also steroids, blood thinner warfarin and even sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra.

“We were surprised but at the same time, there definitely seems to be an element of deception in designing these things to have a specific outcome,” he said.

“They may contain ephedrine, which will give a lot of people a buzz, and therefore they feel good and they think ‘this is fantastic medicine, I should keep taking it’.”

Arsenic, lead, strychnine found in some medicines

Arsenic, cadmium and lead were found in some of the Chinese medicine.

One of the herbal concoctions contained over 10 times the recommended daily limit for arsenic exposure.

Another contained strychnine, which is used as a rat poison and at lower levels as a performance-enhancing drug.

“Obviously if someone has been taking this for a very long time, they may have unwittingly exposed themselves to reasonably high levels of the poison strychnine,” Dr Maker said.

“If we don’t know what’s in them, it’s very difficult to predict the interactions, and also [they can be] taken with other medications.

“That’s obviously of great concern if they [have] been given to children, or pregnant women, the potential outcomes there are very serious,” he said.

DNA of endangered species detected

Professor Bunce said one of most alarming results was the DNA presence of endangered species.

Curtin University's Professor Michael Bunce

“One herbal medicine that’s for sale had trace amounts of snow leopard DNA in it,” Professor Bunce said.

“We also found DNA from pit vipers, frogs and trace amounts of cat and dog DNA.”

Whether the animal products were primary ingredients or the result of poor manufacturing processes is yet to be determined.

Curtin University researcher Dr Megan Coghlan said the result demonstrated that despite heavy penalties for illegal trafficking of protected wildlife, poaching and smuggling was still occurring, with traditional medicine a significant “push-factor”.

“Moreover, consumers of this particular medicine would be unaware that they have been ingesting content from this species, as it was not listed as an ingredient,” Dr Coghlan said.

Push for more regulation of herbal imports

Professor Bunce said each herbal medicine sold in Australia needs to be listed with the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), but only 12 of the products tested were registered with the agency and are deemed “low-risk”.

The remaining 14 were not registered by the TGA and therefore should not be available to Australian consumers in a commercial quantity.

The TGA relies on the importer to make a true declaration about the ingredients, an honesty system Dr Garth believes is being exploited.

[They are] complementary because they may only contain pre-approved low-risk ingredients and must not make claims or imply that they have benefit for the treatment or prevention of a serious illness.

TGA spokeswoman

“We would hope there would be a rigorous screening procedure adopted by the TGA to actually monitor these compounds, medicines before they are actually put on sale,” said Dr Garth.

The TGA declined to be interviewed but a spokeswoman said in a statement that most complementary medicines are listed medicines and considered to be of relatively low-risk to consumers.

“[They are] complementary because they may only contain pre-approved low-risk ingredients and must not make claims or imply that they have benefit for the treatment or prevention of a serious illness,” she said.

“The TGA has worked directly with persons responsible for introducing the product to the Australian market referred to in the article to ensure compliance with the requirements of Australia’s therapeutic goods legislation.”

At least one of the products found to illegally contain ephedrine has since been placed on a Customs watch list and authorities have been told to stop any future imports.

The ABC can reveal at least five of the tested products already had customs warning alerts overseas, including two in Malaysia and one in the United Kingdom.

Mr Maker said the practise is widespread and increasing.

Contamination ‘not widespread’: Chinese medicine proponent

National President of the Federation of Chinese Medicine Society of Australia Professor Tzi Chiang Lin said he did not believe such findings would be widespread across the industry.

I think [heavy] metal, it doesn’t matter in the herbal medicine or even the food industry, and that it will happen, … it’s not so serious.

National President of the Federation of Chinese Medicine Society of Australia, Professor Tzi Chiang Lin

“Of course, there are some people … that are not that good and they might be making something not very nicely,” he said.

“[But you] can not [put] blame on the whole profession, it will be one or two individuals. It may be one or two cases [that have] happened, but not many,” he said.

Professor Lin said the TGA’s current regulatory regime is “perfect”.

“The low-risk herbal medicines [are] already regulated very closely by [the] TGA, and they supervise very strictly the manufacturers in China,” he said.

“Over-regulation will mean trouble for the industry and [would not be] fair for the profession.”

Professor Lin said traces of heavy metal contamination were not particularly unusual and probably linked to the soil ingredients were grown in, as they had chemical fertilisers added.

The study’s findings have been published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

Researchers plan to now scrutinise up to 300 other widely available herbal medicines.

Invisible harm from ionizing radiation

Besides the terrible effects of the burst of light that causes eye damage, the heat that sets everything flammable on fire, the electromagnetic pulse that knocks out all electronic devices, and the blast that produces winds with ten times the force of a hurricane, demolishing everything, the detonation of nuclear weapons also leads to the emission of large amounts of ionizing radiation, which has serious deleterious effects on humans and many other species. Ionizing radiation is, in fact, a lurking danger as we cannot see it, we cannot smell it, we cannot hear it, and we cannot feel it immediately. But we certainly get harmed from it.

Chinese medicines tested by Curtin University researchers.

To reduce exposure to ionizing radiation and the risk of deleterious effects, we doctors usually warn our patients against having frequent examinations or procedures that involve x-rays. That is because x-rays are ionizing radiation that can harm your body in the same ways as radiation emitted by nuclear detonations. The main difference is that, for medical purposes, the radiation is applied in a controlled way.

The international standard unit for the dose of ionizing radiation is the Sievert. National guidelines in many countries warn against people having a cumulative dose of ionizing radiation exceeding 0.001 Sievert/year.  The dose from a full body CT scan is 0.01 – 0.03 Sievert.


The ionizing radiation to which everybody in the vicinity of a nuclear detonation is exposed is so high and immediate that measuring in Sievert does not have much meaning. Such exposures are measured in Gray, where five Gray is reckoned to be lethal to 50% of those exposed (LD50). Even though these types of exposures are not directly comparable, for the common types of ionizing radiation, 1 Gray equals approximately 1.3 Sievert.

The intensity of the radiation at the epicenter of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki was estimated to be 320 Gray; one kilometer away it was 7.83 Gray; two kilometers away it was 0.13 Gray. The first two exposures are lethal; the third is about 130 times above the recommended yearly dose for humans.  In an attempt to transform the radiation from a nuclear explosion into a standardized dose estimate, the highest reading of ionizing radiation from the fallout from the Trinity bomb, 32 km away from the detonation, and 3 hours later, was 0.190 Sievert/hour which equals 1.700 Sievert/year. There is evidence that a single dose of about five Sievert may be lethal. Cancer risk in general is reckoned to increase by approximately 5.5% for every Sievert/year.

Ionizing radiation and, in particular, gamma radiation, can penetrate tissue and cause harm throughout the body. Cells that have rapid life cycles are the most susceptible to acute damage. If the dose is high enough, the irradiated cells are simply killed by the radiation. That knowledge is used in all kinds of radiotherapy. The most susceptible cells are those of the central nervous system, blood cells, gamete cells, and barrier cells in the gastrointestinal tract. Therefore, symptoms of acute radiation illness are drowsiness and convulsions, anemia and bleeding, and loss of body fluid by bleeding and through the gut. Patients are seen more or less unconscious with skin hemorrhages and bleeding out of every opening of the body. No treatment is available apart for attempts for symptomatic relieve.

Long term effects of too much ionizing radiation include congenital malformations from genetic damage to gamete cells, and an increased risk of different types of cancer as seen in the cohorts of survivors from the  atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the past 70 years.

Detonation of a nuclear bomb generates both direct ionizing radiation from the explosion and also huge amounts of radioactive contamination that can spread with the wind into the atmosphere and precipitate as “fallout” onto land or water. The same can happen as a consequence of nuclear reactor disasters, such as Chernobyl and Fukushima. Such radioactive fallout is immediately deleterious to both humans and animals and can make large areas of land uninhabitable, unpastoral, and uncultivable for decades.

Ionizing radiation is normally present in nature from many sources in the Earth’s crust. Humans and animals have evolved to endure small amounts of ionizing radiation, with an assumed (but nevertheless controversial) “safe” dose of less than 0.001 Sievert/year. That is a fine and tender balance that should not be disturbed by the emission of unnecessary and dangerous  ionizing radiation anywhere into the environment, whether by nuclear weapons or other human activities.