The medicines are usually manufactured outside the U.S. and brought into the country by travelers in their suitcases. Lead is added to some of these medicines because of its supposed curative properties, although doctors say it has no proven medical benefits. In other cases, they become contaminated with lead from soil or through the manufacturing process.
In the Southwest, lead poisoning has been traced to Mexican remedies such as greta, azarcon and rueda powders; they are used as constipation remedy in children and contain as much as 90 percent lead.
On the East coast, high lead levels in the blood have been tied to litargirio, a powder containing up to 79 percent lead used by Dominican immigrants to treat ills such as foot fungus and body odor. Dangerous amounts of lead have also been found in Indian ayurvedic medicines such as ghasard, a powder used to relieve constipation in babies, and mahayogaraj gugullu, which is used for high blood pressure.
Whenever you decide to take a natural remedy, whether a vitamin supplement, herbal formula or folk remedy, you still need to remember that not only are there potential side effects, but that not all manufacturers put out high quality products, which will make a big difference when it comes to both effectiveness and safety.
Therefore, this story does point out a legitimate concern. Be very careful with where you get your products from, and do your research, just as you would read up on any pharmaceutical drug you might consider taking.
Weeding Through the Concerns about Lead in Plant Remedies
First, let me emphasize that this warning is for traditional medicine manufactured and imported illegally from foreign countries, not those from U.S. based operations, which have far more rigid rules regarding these issues.
However, the question remains; is lead in plant medicine a significant problem, and, how can you ensure you’re getting a good quality product that is free of contaminations?
Plant foods do tend to contain some level of lead naturally, as plants absorb soil lead very efficiently, and also retain the lead it has absorbed. Approximately 7 percent of the lead in the soil will be taken up by the plants growing in it. (Excessive lead levels will kill the plant entirely.)
Additionally, lead fallout from the air tends to remain in the top inch of the soil. Therefore, shallow-rooted plants are particularly vulnerable. Surprisingly, one of your main dietary sources of lead is from grains, with whole grains being particularly high, since its fibrous seed coat retains minerals.
Warnings about high heavy metal content in some Chinese patent herb products during the 1990’s prompted testing of many Chinese herbal remedies. At the time, the California Department of Health Services, Food and Drug Branch tested 260 patents sold in California herb shops.
According to a paper by Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Traditional Medicine in Portland, Oregon, more than 90 percent of the Chinese patents tested were well below the U.S. Pharmacopoeia limits for medicines of botanical origin, which for lead is 10 ppm. Most of the herbs tested contained less than 2 to 3 ppm.
But the question still remains: where does the lead in the herbs come from?
The answer is most likely a combination of these factors:
Growing the herbs in highly contaminated soil
Applying pesticides and fumigants containing lead
Manufacturing the herbal remedy in contaminated facilities
Using highly contaminated water in the manufacturing process
Adding lead-containing mineral compounds to the formulation
Fortunately, whatever the reason for the lead contamination of some of the herbs manufactured in Hong Kong, formulas manufactured in the U.S. were not found to have the same problem -- most likely due to more stringent manufacturing rules and processes.
Why You Should Pay Attention to Lead Contamination
Chronic high levels of lead in your blood is associated with decreased intelligence and neurological impairment in children -- including the potential of permanent brain damage if they’re exposed to high levels at an early age -- and hypertension in adults.
For more information about the warning signs of lead poisoning, and your most common sources of lead, please see my previous article, How Do You Know if You Have Lead Poisoning?
I recommend getting your, and especially your child’s blood lead levels tested regularly. According to the 2005 updated guidelines from the CDC, children’s blood levels should be no higher than 6 µg/dl to avoid subtle neurological symptoms.
Symptoms usually become evident above 10 µg/dl. Blood lead levels of 380 ug/dL can cause convulsions, coma, and even death.
Adults should not have levels over 25 µg/dl to avoid hypertensive symptoms. Pregnant women, however, must be especially cautious, as both spontaneous abortion and potential damage to the fetus can occur if your blood level is just 10 µg/dl or more. Keep in mind also that these numbers are no guarantee of safety – no one definitive threshold has been established, and NO particular cutoff level can be defended based on existing data as being “totally safe.”
Making the possibility of lead poisoning even worse are the studies showing that fluoridated water supplies can increase children's absorption of lead, and, when lead is introduced into your body in sufficient quantities, it displaces zinc, which also disrupts brain cell growth.
What to do if Your Test Shows Presence of Lead
A chelating process called DMSA can help extract not only lead, but also mercury, cadmium, arsenic, antimony, and may other heavy metals from your body. Heavy metals suppress the effect of a number of enzymes, some of which can be easily tested to see if you may be suffering from an excess of these heavy metals.
For more in-depth information about this process, I recommend reading the Mercury Detox Autism Protocol.
Remember, just because your supplement is natural does not mean it’s always safe for you to take. My position on most natural remedies is to try avoid them, and use lifestyle modifications to treat the foundational causes instead.
While herbs are generally far safer than drugs and usually cost less (if one does not factor in third party insurance reimbursement), they rarely treat the cause of the symptom or disease.
In addition to that basic fact, one has to address the integrity of the company selling the supplements. There is a great variability in quality of raw ingredients that go into the supplements. Many companies are not of the highest integrity and sell supplements that are there in name only.
They have very little, if any, active ingredient, and may contain a variety of contaminations. Even worse, the processing of the supplement could damage it in a way that could cause some potential toxicity. Generally, the lower the cost of the supplement the greater the likelihood this is happening.
Fortunately, in my office I have the technical ability to test my supplements to ensure that the ones I carry are of the highest quality possible in the industry.