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JAMA Publishes Article on Heavy Metals Detected in Ayurvedic Herbal Products

(December 15, 2004) The December 15 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association contains an article1 that reports that of 70 Ayurvedic herbal products made in South Asia (probably mostly in India) and purchased in the Boston area, 20% of them were tested to contain toxic levels of the heavy metals lead, mercury and arsenic.

A press release from JAMA2 contains a call for advisories from public health officials: “Public health and community organizations should consider issuing advisories to current or previous Ayurvedic HMP users, encouraging them to consult their physicians about heavy metal screening.”

The author’s also are quoted as saying, "Our findings support calls for reform of DSHEA that would require mandatory testing of all imported dietary supplements for toxic heavy metals."

According to Mark Blumenthal, Founder and Executive Director of the American Botanical Council, “The authors’ call for reform of federal law is apparently being made without the knowledge that DSHEA (the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994) already has provisions for heightened GMPs (good manufacturing practices) for dietary supplements. FDA is expected to publish final rules for GMPs imminently, possibly before the end of this year. In addition, the importation and/or sale of herbal products containing heavy metals is illegal under existing FDA laws, i.e., the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938. The use of appropriate quality control measures for dietary supplements that will be required in the new GMPs for supplements made overseas for importation into the U.S. would prevent problems like the one being reported here.”

Blumenthal emphasized that while he believed the JAMA article is an important contribution to the herbal literature, he said that most news articles might be exaggerating the public health implications of the story. Although there is always a need for concern about excessive levels of heavy metals (e.g., arsenic, lead, mercury, etc.) in any conventional food or dietary supplement, Blumenthal emphasized that the products tested and reported in JAMA appeared to be purchased in ethnic Indian grocery stores in the Boston area. The products do not reflect most of the Ayurvedic herbal products found in natural food stores or, more importantly, the general herbal products found at most retail outlets in the U.S.

1 JAMA abstract: Saper RB, Kales SN, Paquin J, et al. Heavy metal content of Ayurvedic herbal medicine products. JAMA. December 15, 2004;292(23):2868-2873.

2 The JAMA Press Release