Online Ayurvedic Medicine May Be Unsafe

One-Fifth of Ayurvedic Medicines Available Online Contain Metals, Including Lead

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on August 26, 2008
From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 26, 2008 -- Ordering traditional Ayurvedic medicines on the Internet may be unsafe.

Approximately one-fifth of Ayurvedic medicines sold online to Americans contain metals, including lead, according to a new study by Boston University researchers. Ayurveda is a traditional medical system used in India and by many South Asians living worldwide.

Since 1978, more than 80 cases of lead poisoning associated with Ayurvedic medicine have been reported, according to the study, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

Researchers used five different Internet search engines to locate 25 sites selling Ayurvedic medicines. They identified 673 products and randomly chose 230 to order. These orders were all placed in 2005. After receiving 193 of the 230 products, researchers sent their purchases to the New England Regional EPA for testing.

Results show that 20.7% of the products contained lead, mercury, and/or arsenic. Of the products manufactured in the United States, 21.7 percent contained metals. Of the Indian-manufactured products, 19.5 percent contained metals. Those identified as containing metal contained enough metal to be considered toxic according to one or more acceptable standards for daily intake.

There are two main types of Ayurvedic medicines: herbal-only and rasa shastra, which is the practice of deliberately combining herbs with metals (such as mercury, lead, iron, and zinc), minerals (such as mica) or gems (such as pearls). Rasa shastra experts say these medicines are safe and therapeutic when properly prepared and administered.

Researchers found that the rasa shastra medicines were more than twice as likely as non-rasa shastra medicines to contain detectable metals, and had higher median concentrations of lead and mercury.

Based on their findings, the study's authors are calling for tougher regulations for dietary supplements. "New FDA regulations and current Indian policies do not specify any maximum acceptable concentrations or daily dose limits for metals in dietary supplements for domestic use," the study says. "We suggest strictly enforced, government-mandated daily dose limits for toxic metals in all dietary supplements and requirements that all manufacturers demonstrate compliance through independent third-party testing."

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Saper, R., The Journal of the American Medical Association, 2008, vol 300: pp 915-923.

News release, The Journal of the American Medical Association.

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