Heavy Metals Found in Ayurvedic Medicines
High concentrations of lead, mercury and arsenic measured.

December 22, 2004

Lead, mercury and arsenic are heavy metals that are toxic to the nervous system. So, what are these poisons doing in medicines?

The answer to this question is Ayurvedic medicine. Ayurvedic medicine is a system of therapy developed in India over 2,000 years ago. In addition to yoga, diet, herbs, breathing exercises and massage, heavy metals are used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat a variety of health conditions.

The increasing popularity of Ayurvedic medicine has led to some concern that users of products containing heavy metals are putting their health at risk. To investigate how often heavy metals are found in Ayurvedic medicines, Dr. Robert Saper (formerly at Harvard Medical School; now at Boston University) led a team of researchers who measured the content of lead, mercury and arsenic in Ayurvedic medicines.

Dr. Saper and his coworkers went to 30 Boston-area stores and purchased 70 different Ayurvedic herbal medicine products (tablets, powders, capsules, liquid). The amount of lead, mercury and arsenic in each product was measured and compared to the safety levels determined by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Of the 70 products tested, 14 (20%) products contained lead, mercury or arsenic or a combination of these heavy metals. The directions for half of the products with heavy metals stated that the medicines could be used by children.

The amounts of each heavy metal in the products varied greatly. For example, some products contained only 5 micrograms of lead in each gram of medicine, but others had 37,000 micrograms of lead in each gram of medicine. If people used the products with lead as directed by the manufacturers, they would exceed the daily intake safety levels for lead. Similiarly, all but one of the mercury-containing products and one of the arsenic-containing products contained more than the recommended daily amount of these heavy metals.

Because imported Ayurvedic medicines are sold as dietary supplements, they are regulated by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, but unlike drugs, are not tested for safety. In fact, several cases of lead poisoning have been linked to Ayurvedic medications. The common use of Ayurvedic medicines may pose health risks for millions of people around the world.

Did you know?
  • "Ayurveda" comes from two Sanskrit words: "Ayuh" meaning life and "Veda" meaning knowledge. (Source: Gogtay et al., 2003.)
  • Prehistoric cave drawings used mercury-containing red paint.
  • Ancient Greek cosmetics contained mercury.
  • Chemical symbols: Lead = Pb (from the Latin word for lead, "plumbum"); Mercury = Hg (from the Latin word for mercury, "hydrargyrum," meaning liquid silver); Arsenic = As.
  • Lead poisoning can cause headaches, stomach pain, confusion, memory problems, kidney and neurological damage. Mercury poisoning can cause brain, lung and kidney damage. Arsenic poisoning can damage the gastrointestinal system, cardiovascular system and nervous system.

Reference and further information:

  1. Saper, R.B., Kales, S.N., Paquin, J., Burns, M.J., Eisenberg, D.M., Davis, R.B. and Phillips, R.S., Heavy metal content of Ayurvedic herbal medicine products, JAMA, 292:2868-2873, 2004.
  2. Gogtay, N.J., Bhatt, H.A., Dalvi, S.S. and Kshirsagar, N.A., The use and safety of non-allopathic Indian medicines, Drug Safety, 25:1005-1019, 2003.
  3. Lead and the Nervous System - from Neuroscience for Kids
  4. Mercury and the Nervous System - from Neuroscience for Kids

GO TO: Neuroscience In The News Explore the Nervous System Table of Contents

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