21st August 2013
A number of unlicensed traditional Chinese medicines sold on the internet have been found to contain dangerously high levels of lead, mercury and arsenic.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) is warning people not to use the products, which despite being unlicensed and not authorised for sale in the UK can be purchased online. Attention was originally drawn to the problem in February, when we published a news story on the regulator having been alerted by the Hong Kong authorities.
One such product – Bak Foong Pills used for the treatment of menstrual pain – has been recalled in Hong Kong after being found to contain up to twice the level of lead permitted by the country's government. Another, used as a hair loss remedy, has also been recalled in Hong Kong. A sample of Hairegenerator was found to contain 11 times the permitted level of mercury.
Unacceptably high levels of arsenic have also been found by The Swedish National Food Agency (SFNA) in products used to treat mumps, sore throat, tonsillitis, toothache, skin infections, anorexia and fever in young children. These products are sold under a variety of names including Niu-Huang Chieh-tu-pein, Divya Kaishore Guggul and Chandraprabha Vati.
People are warned to exercise extreme caution when buying unlicensed medicines, as they have not been assessed for safety and quality and standards can vary widely.
Richard Woodfield, MHRA’s Head of Herbal Policy said: “The adulteration of traditional Chinese medicines with heavy metals is a significant international problem and can pose a serious risk to public health. Natural does not mean safe. To help you choose an herbal medicine that is suitable for you, look for a product that has a Traditional Herbal Registration (THR) or product licence number on the packaging. These products have met the acceptable quality and safety standards."
Mr Woodfield continued: “If you think you have taken any of these products please speak to your doctor for advice. If you think you have suffered a side effect from these, or any medicines, please tell us about it through our Yellow Card Scheme.”
The MHRA's advice on herbal remedies is as follows:
Herbal remedies should be used with the same caution and care as any other medicines as their use will have an effect on the body. While many herbal remedies are reasonably safe, it is important to remember that just because a product contains natural ingredients and extracts this doesn’t guarantee it is safe. You should always consult with a pharmacist or doctor to make sure that an herbal remedy is suitable for you to take and will not interact with any other medicines you may be taking.
The Traditional Herbal Registration (THR) symbol is a type of trade mark which indicates that an herbal medicine has been registered with the MHRA under the Traditional Herbal Registration (THR) Scheme and meets the required standards relating to its quality, safety, and evidence of traditional use as well as other criteria. Information about herbal medicines regulation.