Chinese herbs can contain poison

Traditional Chinese medicines are considered by some as a more natural, herbal approach to treating medical conditions, including fertility problems. It is estimated 50 per cent of Australians have used alternative therapies at some point. But there are renewed concerns about the safety of the multi-billion-dollar business.

An ABC news story reports on a study carried out by Curtin University, Murdoch University and the University of Adelaide which has now found that 90 per cent of 26 widely available Chinese medicines tested were not fit for human consumption.

Half contained illegal substances, including toxic metals, prescription medications, stimulants and animal DNA, none of which were listed on the product's label.

Murdoch University biochemist Dr Garth Maker said that over-the-counter drugs like paracetamol and ibuprofen were found in the Chinese herbs but also steroids, blood thinner warfarin and even sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra. "We were surprised but at the same time, there definitely seems to be an element of deception in designing these things to have a specific outcome," he said. "They may contain ephedrine, which will give a lot of people a buzz, and therefore they feel good and they think 'this is fantastic medicine, I should keep taking it'."

Professor Bunce of Curtin university added "One herbal medicine that's for sale had trace amounts of snow leopard DNA in it. We also found DNA from pit vipers, frogs and trace amounts of cat and dog DNA." It is unclear whether manufacturers intended these extra ingredients to be mixed in or whether they are contaminations resulting from poor manufacturing processes.

Professor Bunce also said that each herbal medicine sold in Australia needs to be listed with the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), but only 12 of the products tested were registered with the agency and are deemed "low-risk". The remaining 14 were not registered by the TGA and therefore should not be available to Australian consumers in a commercial quantity.

Read more here. And click here for a contribution from the study's authors in The Conversation.