Ah, the irony of it!

This is just too rich.

As you know a few months ago, I commented about a British report that found high levels of mercury and other heavy metals in Chinese herbal medicines sold in the U.K. Some contained as much as 11% mercury by weight! It turns out that a JAMA paper from 2004 did the same thing for Ayurvedic medicines and found some of them also contaminated with mercury and other heavy metals, concluding:

If taken as recommended by the manufacturers, each of these 14 could result in heavy metal intakes above published regulatory standards

Indeed, in the compounds that tested postive for heavy metals, investigators found median levels of 430 μg/g arsenic, 20,225 μg/g mercury, and 40 μg/g of lead.

As has been pointed out, one of the most common causes of a variety of ills, according to alties, is mercury. If you listen to them, you’d think that mercury causes autism, Alzheimer’s disease, ALS, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, allergies, depression, cancer, skin diseases, intestinal problems, and many others. In fact, it would be much faster to list the number of chronic diseases that alties have never tried to tie to mercury, because that list would be very short. It would probably be zero, in fact.

And what is the source of this mercury? Well, if you’re an altie, they come from one of two sources. The source you will hear the most about on the Internet (and you know that, if it’s on the Internet, it must be true) is dental amalgams. Never mind that two large recent studies have shown amalgams to be safe. The second source that alties blame is mercury in the preservative of vaccines. I don’t really think that I need to go into this much, given how many times I’ve written about that particular topic, particularly with regard to activists who blame mercury in vaccines for autism despite the overwhelming epidemiological evidence that, contrary to the position of Generation Rescue, a major activist in this area, autism is not a “misdiagnosis” for mercury poisoning.

Yes, mercury “toxicity” appears to be near the top of the list of things alties fear the most when it comes to their health. To many of them, no amount of mercury is acceptable. (I just hope they don’t eat much fish, particularly tuna; there’s way more mercury exposure from that and other dietary and environmental sources.) No, I’m not denying that mercury can be hazardous if exposure levels are too high. That is surely true. However, the concept of “the dose makes the poison” is completely lost on many alties, and to them no amount of mercury can ever be considered “safe.” The argument is over whether the minuscule amounts of mercury exposure resulting from dental amalgams causes harm or whether the 187.5 μg of mercury that a typical American infant could conceivably have received during its first six months of life when the largest number of thimerosal-containing vaccines were given, before thimerosal was removed in early 2003 was safe. So far, there is no good evidence that either are or were unsafe, but that doesn’t stop alties from undergoing invasive dental procedures to have their amalgam fillings removed because they believe they are being poisoned, and quacks will urge people to remove their amalgam fillings in order to “cure” disease. Parents even refuse vaccination because they fear thimerosal, despite the fact that the last lots of thimerosal-containing vaccines in the U.S. expired over three years ago.

How ironic, then, to see this report claiming that the levels of mercury and other metals in Ayurvedic herbal medicines are perfectly safe:

Prof. Rajamanickam questioned the scientific validity of an article that appeared in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) in December 2004. The authors had analysed 14 Ayurvedic formulations manufactured in India and concluded that they contained heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic and lead.

Prof. Rajamanickam said the authors had failed to analyse the different forms by which the elements are bound but have projected only the quantum of elemental distribution.

This was critical since these elements could be chelated in the formulation and will be safe to use.

Moreover, the final product in Bhasmas and Rasa yogas are different from the raw materials since they would be transformed to therapeutic compounds by different processes like detoxification, titration, heating, etc.

Hence it is unlikely that free elements would be present in these products that may cause damage as claimed by the authors.

“Unlikely”? did anyone bother to–oh–actually check whether free metals were present? And what about “chelated”? How, exactly, would substances in the herbs “chelate” the mercury and how?

This is actually not the first time I’ve heard this sort of excuse from boosters of Chinese and Indian herbal medicines, the claim that, even if there’s mercury in them, it’s “safe” because it’s somehow different, rendered nontoxic by unspecified compounds in the herbal goodness in the remedies (either that, or that the laboratory results come from an evil conspiracy between big pharma, the government, and greedy doctors). Even more ironic, though, this is exactly the explanation as to why the mercury in amalgams is safe (it’s bound up with the silver, tin, copper, and zinc in the amalgam). Try explaining that to anti-amalgam alties, and they’ll have none of it.

The story then describes studies in rats using three drugs from the JAMA study using a dose ten times that prescribed for humans and concluding that these drugs were perfectly safe for people:

Multi-centric investigation under the leadership of Prof. Rajamanickam conducted pre-clinical studies in rats using three drugs that were reported in JAMA by administering a ten times higher dose prescribed for humans.

End stage analysis of the animals after acute, sub-acute, and chronic toxicity studies showed no neuro-toxicity, nephro-toxicity, haemopoetic-toxicity and hepato-toxicity and the higher dosages were found to be safe in all respects.

The study at SASTRA was conducted in collaboration with Prof. G. P. Dubey and his team at Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi and Prof. R. Venkatakrishnan Murali and his team, at the University of Madras.

The results of the clinical studies conducted by Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, showed no adverse medical consequence due to heavy metal toxicity.

Well, that’s a load off my mind. One thing they failed to mention is that the JAMA article found that it was 20% of specimens that had high levels of heavy metals. Unless the researchers tested samples from many different lots, they could easily see no effect. Also, no mention is made of whether they actually tested the heavy metal concentrations of the herbal medicines they tested, to determine if they contained mercury and other metals, or if they measured heavy metal concentrations in the blood and tissues of the experimental animals. Hopefully this study will actually be published somewhere, so that I can actually see what they did. In fact, I think I’ll save a PubMed search on these authors’ names, so that I’ll know about it if it’s published in a journal indexed by MEDLINE. (So far, I only see one article listed by Professor Rajamanickam, who appears to be a geologist or minerologist by training.)

On the other hand, this study could be looked at another way. (I’m not saying that it should be looked at that way, only that it could be.) If this study was done correctly and large amounts of mercury-laden herbs did the rats no harm, its results could be considered preclinical evidence that the safe dose for mercury and other heavy metals may actually be considerably higher than what the FDA says it is.

I wonder if alties will be reassured. After all, if Dr. Rajamanickam’s results are correct and there was mercury in the herbs he tested, it could be indicative that the FDA left a wide margin of safety in its estimates for what constitutes a safe dose of mercury.

I’m guessing they won’t be–except when it comes to Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines. To many of them, it seems, any mercury at all, no matter how small, is a deadly poison–except, of course, when it’s in “alternative” medicines.


  1. #1 Roman Werpachowski
    May 26, 2006

    To many of them, no amount of mercury is acceptable.

    This highlights a general problem with the approach of a wide body of people to environmental factors: they think that if something is dangerous in excess doses, it must therefore be eradicated from our lives completely. Zero mercury. Zero nuclear radiation. Never mind that we had it in our environment all the time.

  2. #2 Charles Winder
    May 26, 2006

    This reminds me of the story I heard on NPR the other day about an outbreak of illness traced back to misidentification of the herbs used in a certain supplement. Apparently, somebody mistakenly substitued Digitalis(!) for common plantain (Plantago). The team of researchers in the story found that a disturbing number of the herbal supplements tested contained plants other than those listed on the bottle.

  3. #3 Laura
    May 26, 2006

    That is a big problem with herbal products because there isn’t regulation. In fact Consumer Labs tests a variety of supplements to verify how much of the active ingredient is even in the product. Often the amounts are way off sometimes high or low. I also heard of bottles of Bee Pollen being recalled because they contained lead.

    I don’t discount the potential of some herbs for medical uses but until there is regulation and testing you can’t believe any of it. It is interesting that they found mercury in the products because I haven’t heard of that before just the lead and arsenic. It does hurt the claims of the anti-vacciners when it comes to mercury and autism though.

  4. #4 Sastra
    May 26, 2006

    Stroll through a “holistic” alternative health & wellness fair and you will see all sorts of therapies, supplements, and devises which contradict each other. And yet you do not see anything critical of the other alternative therapies (ie. “Bee pollen is far better than crystals”) nor do you see any attempts by one sweeping claim to refute other sweeping claims (ie “disease X is not caused by energy unbalance, it is caused by food allergies.”) You would think there would be a lot of arguments, but there aren’t. It’s comraderie all the way.

    I suspect that this is because they really don’t care about the specifics of what they’re selling. They care about showing themselves as unique individuals who are not afraid to think “outside the box.” We’re dealing with romance and story, not science. Mavericks who fight the Establishment hang together.

    Probably why you won’t see the “mercury poisoning” crowd go after Ayurevedic medicine. Ayurevedic nostrums could be pure mercury, but as long as it’s not part of mainstream “allopathic” medicine, it won’t be recognized as an enemy. It’s not really about mercury. It’s about being an iconoclast.

  5. #5 Eric Wilner
    May 26, 2006

    So… is it the mercury in the alternative medicines that causes the alties to be mad as hatters?

  6. #6 Laura
    May 26, 2006

    You are exactly right they do not care if the product works. Its the whole natural vs allopathic medicine argument. Which makes no sense because there are numerous natural toxins. Mercury is natural but apparently only Thimersol is toxic because it isn’t natural. I think Eric is right their supplements have driven them mad.

  7. #7 Kandiyohi
    May 26, 2006

    You can add another item to your list of ills reputedly caused by mercury: Murderous tendencies.

    A mercury mom named Karen McCarron suffocated her 3-year-old autistic daughter a couple of weekends ago. In response, the following was posted on the Evidence of Harm yahoo group:

    “How many parents of autistic children are mercury toxic themselves? How many are close to their toxic tipping point – just one exposure or stressor away from collapse?”

    So now, not only can mercury make a child autistic, but it can make a parent kill that child.

  8. #8 Abel Pharmboy
    May 26, 2006

    Doc, what a beautiful post. I consider myself somewhat of an expert on the use of herbal medicines in Western societies but even I was surprised to learn recently that Ayurvedic and Japanese kampo herbal medicines have heavy metals actively added to them. In fact, and I must find the ref for you and your readers, this very point is how arsenic trioxide (Trisenox) was discovered to be a useful treatment for acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL), alone and together with retinoids.

    Re the first two comments, the adulteration of plantago with Digitalis lanata that Mr Winder describes was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1998. Laura may be interested to know that one of the authors of that report, Dr William Obermeyer, is the former FDA chemist/pharmacognosist who left the agency to co-found ConsumerLab.com. As you might guess, ConsumerLab.com is not very popular among herbal manufacturers but they do provide an important public/consumer service – I included them in my own lengthy post on the best objective herbal medicine sources for under $100 per year.

  9. #9 Not Mercury
    May 27, 2006

    If only they could invent a vaccine to prevent tooth decay then maybe amalgam fillings would be a thing of the past 🙂

  10. #10 BronzeDog
    May 28, 2006

    A mercury mom named Karen McCarron suffocated her 3-year-old autistic daughter a couple of weekends ago. In response, the following was posted on the Evidence of Harm yahoo group:

    “How many parents of autistic children are mercury toxic themselves? How many are close to their toxic tipping point – just one exposure or stressor away from collapse?”

    So now, not only can mercury make a child autistic, but it can make a parent kill that child.

    And now I know why I have a thing for berserkers in anime. Where’d I put my +3 anti-vaxxer bane tire iron?

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