A Candle in the Dark

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Archive for September 4th, 2008

Two plus two makes five: Selling danger by ignoring evidence

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A week ago, it was reported by the media that a study conducted by a group of US scientists from the Boston Medical Center and published in the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Medical Association, reported that 20% of ayurvedic and herbal “medicines” sold over the internet contained dangerous amounts of toxic heavy metals 1 2.

Now, this isn’t the first time that such a concern has been raised. In 2004, the same group had published a study which concluded that3

One of 5 Ayurvedic HMPs produced in South Asia and available in Boston South Asian grocery stores contains potentially harmful levels of lead, mercury, and/or arsenic. Users of Ayurvedic medicine may be at risk for heavy metal toxicity, and testing of Ayurvedic HMPs for toxic heavy metals should be mandatory.

The new study further looked at the prevalence of toxic heavy metals in ayurvedic and herbal “medicine” depending on the country of manufacture of the drug. The study found that4,

One hundred ninety-three of the 230 requested medicines were received and analyzed. The prevalence of metal-containing products was 20.7% (95% confidence interval [CI], 15.2%-27.1%). The prevalence of metals in US-manufactured products was 21.7% (95% CI, 14.6%-30.4%) compared with 19.5% (95% CI, 11.3%-30.1%) in Indian products (P = .86)

That is, the study found that there’s very little difference between the amount of heavy metals found in herbal “medicine” whether it was manufactured in the US or India.

You might be aware that India has a government sponsored national department of pseudoscience, known as AYUSH. In fact, the home page on their website proudly displays,

a) The Law of Similars – It is also called the Law of Cure. This law demonstrates that the selected remedy is able to produce a range of symptoms in a healthy person similar to that observed in the patient, thus leading to the principle of Similia Similibus Curentur i.e. let likes be treated by likes. To give a simple example the effects of peeling an onion are very similar to the symptoms of acute cold.

Psora, Syphilis and Sycosis are the three fundamental causes of all chronic diseases that afflict the human race as discovered by Dr. Hahnemann and called them miasms

Er… what year are we living in again? Is the national department of pseudoscience even vaguely familiar with the concept of viruses, bacteria or indeed, modern biology? The page then goes on to blatantly display rubbish as fact. Vital force? Miasm? It’s appalling how they attempt to display such nonsense with such seriousness.

Anyway, the aforementioned AYUSH has responded to the recent published study on heavy metals in herbal “medicines”. Their entire statement can be found here.

The press release by AYUSH makes several claims to serve as evidence that the study by the Boston Medical group was flawed. Let’s look at some of them which I found interesting.


A project for Physico chemical characterization and toxicity studies of 8 widely used Bhasmas (Rasa Aushadhies) was also sanctioned under the Golden Triangle Project which is being carried out by various laboratories of CSIR i.e. Indian Institute of Toxicological Research (IITR), Lucknow, Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT), Hyderabad. Under this project, one of the reputed manufacturers of Rasa Aushadhies was chosen for manufacturing of the selected Rasa Aushadhies as per the classical texts which were made available to CSIR laboratories for physio chemical characterization and their toxicity studies. On the basis of 28 days toxicity studies, all the 8 Rasa Aushadhies have been found to be non-toxic.


Samples of 600 Indian medicinal plants collected from the wild as well as various medicinal plant gardens in India by the Council for Scientific Research in Ayurveda and Siddha were sent to the Indian Institute of Toxicological Research (CSIR), Lucknow, Sri Ram Institute of Industrial Toxicology, New Delhi and Centre for Research in Indian Medicine, Shastra University, Thanjavur. The test reports received from these three laboratories disclose that Lead, Mercury and Arsenic have not been found in these 600 Indian medicinal plants samples above the permissible limits laid down by WHO which is 10ppm for Lead, 1ppm for Mercury and 3ppm for Arsenic. This study clearly indicates that Indian medicinal plants collected from the wild or cultivated have been found to be free from lead, mercury and arsenic contamination contrary to the claim made by Dr. Robert Saper et al in their second article “Lead, Mercury and Arsenic in US- and Indian- Manufactured Ayurvedic Medicines sold via the Internet” published in JAMA, August 27, 2008.


Further, some of the medicines mentioned in Table 3 of the article, namely Akangvir Ras, Agnitundi Bati, Arogyavardhini Bati are herbo metallic compounds which contain these metals as therapeutic agents after purification process. Dr. Saper has visited India and has been in touch with several Ayurveda experts and is fully aware that these herbo-metallic preparations used in Ayurvedic system of medicine contain heavy metals like lead, mercury and arsenic as therapeutic agents after proper de-toxification process and no significant adverse drug reactions have been reported regarding their use in India.

(emphasis mine)

(i) CLAIM 1: AYUSH do not mention if the results of the toxicity studies of the eight (compare this with the peer-reviewed study) herbal “medicines” have been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, but they go on to claim that most of the studies are “in progress” and the results will be obtained soon. If so, how do they claim to know that the results are going to prove that the herbal “medicine” will be free of toxic metals? Statements such as the one below makes one wonder if there’s a bias introduced, because they claim to know the results of the tests before they actually get them!

CSIR would be getting the results of this scientific research published to set at rest doubts regarding the safety of Rasa Aushadhies prepared properly as per classical texts.

Also, it’s important to note that we don’t know the methodology of the study and therefore can’t evaluate how credible this study is as there could be many flaws. For instance, while they claim that the 28 day toxic test showed that the herbal “medicine” was nontoxic, they do not mention the actual amounts detected. Compare this with the peer-reviewed studies.

Additionally, there’s a lot we don’t know about the methodology of the study. For example, did they ask the “reputed manufacturers” of Rasa Aushadhies to specially prepare the samples for a test? Could they have been that stupid? Or, did they randomly take samples from the market, which is more representative of the actual product that the consumer buys? You see, details like this are important before one can judge how credible a claim is. Besides, even if this claim was right, it doesn’t invalidate the study published in JAMA. It merely shows the importance for additional tests!

(ii) CLAIM 2: This is a classic straw-man argument. It has absolutely no relation to what Dr Saper’s group are claiming. Just because you tested 600 wild plants for heavy metal content DOES NOT automatically mean that the final herbal “medicine” and plants sold to the customer are free from the toxic heavy metals. What you have to do, is to test the actual ayurvedic “medicine” which is sold! This is precisely what Dr Saper’s group have done. If you’re claiming that Dr Saper’s methodology was flawed, then you need to point out precisely why. Just claiming that their results were wrong isn’t sufficient.

(iii) CLAIM 3: Perhaps, this is the worst one of the lot. It’s criminally ignorant and malicious. There’s no such thing as “detoxifying” heavy metals to make them safe. The toxicity of lead is because of its chemical action once it binds and interacts with enzymes in our human body, and interferes with essential biological activities. You can’t magically “detoxify” lead to remove it’s elemental properties. No sane person would recommend using elemental lead, mercury and arsenic as therapeutic agents. I don’t think there’s a single shred of scientific evidence which backs that claim.

When a governmental organization blindly ignores experimental evidence in a peer-reviewed journal about the dangers of a product using flimsy and non-existent reasoning, and instead states that the authors of the study “are consciously trying to malign the reputation of Ayurveda”, they are displaying the extent of irresponsibility and the unscientific and unprofessional attitude which maligns the organization.

Some Ayurvedic “medicine” may indeed work. But, what is required is stringent scientific tests and quality control to ensure the products are safe to use, and to try to understand the chemical and biological reason for their efficacy. The policy of ignoring information about potentially dangerous products, and attempting to rubbish evidence which does not agree with their viewpoint, may have disastrous consequences for the populace which buys such traditional “medicine”

External Links

[1]Toxic metals in Ayurvedic remedies
[2]Indian herbal medicines queried
[3] -R. B. Saper et al., Heavy Metal Content of Ayurvedic Herbal Medicine Products, vol. 292 (Am Med Assoc, 2004).
[4] – Robert B. Saper et al., “Lead, Mercury, and Arsenic in US- and Indian-Manufactured Ayurvedic Medicines Sold via the Internet,” JAMA 300, no. 8 (August 27, 2008): 915-923, doi:10.1001/jama.300.8.915.


Written by parseval

September 4, 2008 at 6:25 am

Posted in pseudoscience, science