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article imageUnhealthy surprises found in Traditional Chinese Medicine

By Kathleen Blanchard     Apr 15, 2012 in Health
Researchers have found some potentially toxic ingredients in samplings from traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). They also found traces of endangered animals, with the help of new DNA sequencing technology.
TCM samples were also found to contain allergens that consumers wouldn’t be aware of, because they weren’t included on the labels.
Scientists for the study say the finding is important when making choices about treating health.
Dr. Michael Bunce, research leader and Murdoch University Australian Research Council Future Fellow, said in a press release that Chinese medicine has a long history of use, but "…” consumers need to be aware of the legal and health safety issues before adopting them as a treatment option.”
Animal traces found in the medicines included Asiatic black bear and Saiga antelope. The scientists studied 15 samples of Chinese medicine powders, tablets, capsules, flakes, and herbal teas, which were discovered by using a new DNA sequencing technology.
"In total we found 68 different plant families in the medicines – they are complex mixtures of species," Dr Bunce said in new release regarding the findings. "Some of the TCMs contained plants of the genus Ephedra and Asarum. These plants contain chemicals that can be toxic if the wrong dosage is taken, but none of them actually listed concentrations on the packaging.”
The dangers of Ephedra, also known as ma huang, have been widely published because of its stimulating effect on the nervous system. Asarum was recently found to be linked to a type of bladder cancer; reported by the Los Angeles Times.
Megan Coghlan, who is studying the application of DNA techniques in wildlife forensic applications and a PhD student, explained the animal traces found in the Chinese medicines are illegal because they are not permitted to be traded according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) Legislation.
Because ingredients in the TCM’s studied weren’t listed, the authors say they could contain allergens such as soy and nuts, putting consumers at risk.
Mongnan Tianbao pills, contained deer and cow DNA. Ingesting cow is contrary to several religions. Goat and sheep DNA was found in one product labeled “100 per cent Saiga antelope.”
The authors write, “Some of these species, such as water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis), Asiatic toad (of the genus Bufo), and domestic cow (Bos taurus), are known for their use in medicinal products, whereas use of goat (Capra hircus) is less well represented in the literature and may be used as a substitute for traditionally used animal species. As with all animal-containing products the consumer needs to be aware of the possibility of zoonotic pathogens, such concerns have been raised previously in the context of TCM.”
The good news is the new DNA sequencing technology can keep consumers safe and help halt the illegal trade of endangered animals.
Bunce and his team plan to use the approach to study herbal medicines. The efforts of the researchers will hopefully lead to stricter regulation of complementary and alternative medicine. Until that happens, the lesson for consumers is to be aware that labeling of Chinese Traditional Medicine might be misleading, based on the study findings. The results are published in the journal PLoS Genetics.
More about Traditional chinese medicine, Toxins, endangered animals, Dr Michael Bunce
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