AYURVEDA IS A TRADITIONAL medical system used by a majority of India’s 1.1 billion population.1 Ayurveda is also used worldwide by the South Asian diaspora and others.1 However, since 1978 more than 80 cases of lead poisoning associated with Ayurvedic medicine use have been reported worldwide. 2,3 Ayurvedic medicines are divided into 2 major types: herbal only and rasa shastra. Rasa shastra is an ancient practice of deliberately combining herbs with metals (eg, mercury, lead, iron, zinc), minerals (eg, mica), and gems (eg, pearl).4,5 Rasa shastra experts claim that these medicines, if properly prepared and administered, are safe and therapeutic.4,5 Of 70 Ayurvedic medicines manufactured in South Asia and sold in Boston, Massachusetts, stores in 2003, we found that 20% contained lead, mercury, and/or arsenic.6 Estimated daily lead, mercury, and arsenic intakes for these products were all higher than regulatory limits.
We identified several rasa shastra medicines that could cause lead and mercury ingestions exceeding US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limits by 3 to 4 orders of magnitude. Similar results have been found in other North American cities.7-10
Author Affiliations are listed at the end of this article.
Corresponding Author: Robert B. Saper, MD, MPH, Department of Family Medicine, Boston Medical Center, One Boston Medical Center Place, Dowling 5 S, Boston, MA 02118-2317 (robert.saper@bmc .org).
Context Lead, mercury, and arsenic have been detected in a substantial proportion of Indian-manufactured traditional Ayurvedic medicines. Metals may be present due to the practice of rasa shastra (combining herbs with metals, minerals, and gems). Whether toxic metals are present in both US- and Indian-manufactured Ayurvedic medicines is unknown.
Objectives To determine the prevalence of Ayurvedic medicines available via the Internet containing detectable lead, mercury, or arsenic and to compare the prevalence of toxic metals in US- vs Indian-manufactured medicines and between rasa shastra and non–rasa shastra medicines.
Design A search using 5 Internet search engines and the search terms Ayurveda and Ayurvedic medicine identified 25 Web sites offering traditional Ayurvedic herbs, formulas, or ingredients commonly used in Ayurveda, indicated for oral use, and available for sale. From 673 identified products, 230 Ayurvedic medicines were randomly selected for purchase in August-October 2005. Country of manufacturer/Web site supplier, rasa shastra status, and claims of Good Manufacturing Practices were recorded. Metal concentrations were measured using x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy.
Main Outcome Measures Prevalence of medicines with detectable toxic metals in the entire sample and stratified by country of manufacture and rasa shastra status.
Results 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). Rasa shastra compared with non–rasa shastra medicines had a greater prevalence of metals (40.6% vs 17.1%; P=.007) and higher median concentrations of lead (11.5 μg/g vs 7.0 μg/g; P=.03) and mercury (20 800 μg/g vs 34.5 μg/g; P=.04). Among the metal- containing products, 95% were sold by US Web sites and 75% claimed Good Manufacturing Practices. All metal-containing products exceeded 1 or more standards for acceptable daily intake of toxic metals.
Conclusion One-fifth of both US-manufactured and Indian-manufactured Ayurvedic medicines purchased via the Internet contain detectable lead, mercury, or arsenic.