Study reveals Chinese medicines contain Viagra, rat poison and endangered animals

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Illegal substances, arsenic, Viagra and the DNA of endangered species are among the unlisted substances found in a sample of 26 widely available traditional Chinese medicines in Australia.

A study of 26 widely-available traditional Chinese medicines has found 90 per cent were not safe for human consumption because of undeclared illegal and dangerous substances.

Australian researchers at Curtin University, Murdoch University and the University of Adelaide used DNA sequencing, toxicology and heavy metal testing to screen the composition of 26 traditional Chinese medicines sold as flu and general wellness treatments, purchased from the Adelaide Markets.

The brands of medicines were not disclosed, but researchers said those tested were easily found in markets and retailers around Australia.

The results, published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, found 92 per cent of the medicines tested contained at least one or more substances not listed on the label. Sixty per cent of the medicines contained more than one undeclared substance.

The unlisted substances included over-the-counter drugs such as paracetamol, steroids, illegal stimulants like ephedrine and even the active ingredient found in Viagra, sildenafil.

Of the 26 medicines, 12 were listed by the regulatory authority, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). The remaining 14 had no listing and should not have been sold commercially.

DNA from endangered species detected

Some of the unlisted substances were DNA from plants and endangered animals such as the snow leopard and tigers. DNA from the pit viper and frogs were also found to have been deliberately added, researchers say.

Traces of DNA from the rat, cat and dog were also found in small quantities that could be from contamination during the manufacturing process.

Toxic heavy metals found in half of the medicines

More than half the medicines contained significant levels of toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and cadmium. Four out of 26 contained a dosage of heavy metals over 10 times the regulatory limit set by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in Australia.

One of the medicines tested contained a substance used as rat poison and in low dosages as a performance-enhancing drug, strychnine.

Banned pharmaceuticals found

Illegal substances such as ephedrine were found in some of the medicines. Blood thinner warfarin, which should be taken under medical supervised to avoid the potential for harm, was detected.

Researchers said they were concerned that undeclared pharmaceutical substances, such as antibiotics and antihistamines, were often “tailored” to achieve a desired outcome such as weight gain by pushing the single dosage of a pharmaceutical substance above the recommended safe dose.

“Such findings are not only of concern to the consumer, but also flag the need for detailed auditing of herbal preparations prior to evaluation in clinical trials,” the study said.

Deliberately added?

The study said it was difficult to make a definitive statement on whether the unlisted substances were deliberately added or were merely by-products from contaminated soil.

But researchers said an examination of the pattern of materials suggests some substances were deliberately added. The research paper points to the example of a medicine which had ephedrine without any plant DNA.

Authors of the study recommended consumers should look for an Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG) label, but said the label was not a complete guarantee of safety.

‘Light touch’ regulation criticised

The study's authors criticised the regulation process, saying more stringent auditing and accountability were needed.

The TGA requires manufacturers of complementary medicines, which are classified as containing low-risk ingredients, to self-declare the list of substances contained in the product.

Authors said some manufacturers of traditional Chinese medicines were exploiting this system of self-reporting.

“To assess the effectiveness of this regulatory system, an accurate post-market auditing strategy of herbal medicines is required, a sentiment endorsed in World Health Organisation strategy reports,” the study said.

In a statement, the TGA said it has taken regulatory action with only four of the reported medicines remaining on its register.

It said has investigated reported cases of illegal supply and issued warnings.

The TGA said it also advises consumers to choose products that are listed by them and subject to TGA scrutiny.

Researchers say they plan to test up to 300 widely-available traditional Chinese medicines as part of the next phase of the project.

Contamination is isolated: Chinese Medicine Society

The Federation of Chinese Medicine Society of Australia said the study provides no cause for concern, saying contamination would not be widespread in Australia.

The society's president, Professor Lin Tzi Chiang, acknowledged that some manufacturers might not be complying with standards set by the TGA, but said by and large most manufacturers would be doing the right thing.

"Unfortunately for sure, there might be one or two products that it might happen like that, but it cannot be blamed on the whole profession," he told SBS World News. 

He warned against over-regulation of traditional Chinese medicines, saying it would place an unfair burden on the industry and profession.

Source SBS News

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