Regulation of Ayurvedic medicines a must

Mohuya Chaudhuri

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Monday, June 26, 2006 (New Delhi):

Ayurveda, literally the knowledge of life or the practice of traditional medicine, has been growing in popularity and gaining acceptance across the globe.

But as this ancient form of treatment becomes more widespread, other issues are also being brought to the fore, namely the composition and monitoring of these medicines.

For instance, youngsters often turn to popular age-old remedies such as Safi, a Unani formulation, to deal with everyday problems like acne.

The manufacturer Hamdard Wakf Laboratories claim that Safi is a blood purifier and safe for all ages.

However, following a Canadian government health advisory last March that warned consumers not to take Safi since it had 40 times the permitted level of arsenic, NDTV decided to carry out independent tests on three popular blood purifiers that straddle the segment Safi, Surakta and Aimil's Amypure.

All the tests were conducted at the reputed Shriram Insitute for Industrial Research in Delhi, and the brands unknown to the laboratory, i.e., the tests were blind tests.

The reports, however, revealed some startling results.

Shocking results

All three medicines did not comply with the World Health Organisation's regulatory requirements and contained high levels of heavy metals.

The sample of Safi was found to contain 24 parts per million of arsenic, which is over twice the permitted level of 10 ppm, and it was also found to be adulterated with a synthetic steroid.

The sample of Surakta, which is manufactured by one of the oldest Ayurveda companies Baidyanath, had a whopping 115 times the permitted amount of mercury, while only 1 ppm is considered safe by the WHO.

The third product, Aimil's Amypure, also contained 3 ppm of mercury.

Manufacturers explain

However, Hamdard, Safi's manufacturer, says that the company conducts several tests on its products and that the findings are incorrect.

Nevertheless, it admits that there are environmental reasons for these heavy metals seeping into herbal formulations, which is a fact that is recognised by the WHO.

Baidyanath, the makers of Surakta, also say the same thing.

"We don't use heavy metals in syrups. There must be some mistake in the tests. These are new issues that are coming up and we are now setting up water treatment plants in all our factories," says Ajay Sharma, President, Baidyanath.

Environmental pollution

It is increasingly becoming clear that environmental pollution could be responsible for the large-scale contamination of herb-based medicines.

A number of Ayurveda factories are situated next to banks of rivers like the Ganga and use the river water for making their formulations.

Scientific studies have shown that many rivers are highly polluted by heavy metals such as chromium, cadmium, lead, iron and mercury, which is due to distilleries, paper and sugar mills and chemical units that operate along the rivers.

However, companies must finally take responsibility to ensure that their drugs are safe.

This is because when taken over a long period of time, these medications laced with heavy metals can be extremely harmful.

According to toxicologists, arsenic settles in the organs and over time damages the liver and the central nervous system, while mercury impairs vision, speech and brain development.

Need for regulation

"There needs to be strict guidelines for companies to meet safety standards," says Shiv Besant, Jt Secretary, AYUSH, Union Health Ministry.

But consumers have no way of knowing these details, as all these medicines are sold over the counter with no warnings.

So in the end, it's all about regulation and just like allopathic drugs, the sale of Ayurvedic drugs too needs to be strictly monitored across the country.

At the moment, the implementation of the Drugs and Cosmetic Act by state governments, which are the regulatory authorities, is still poor.

For instance, Safi is being sold freely in Maharashtra even though the state's Food and Drug Administration has not approved its sale because it failed to meet safety standards.

Apart from strict regulations though, the customer must also tread cautiously when looking for over-the-counter treatment options, since a glowing skin may be good, but sound health is better.