Herbal medicines can be lethal, pathologist warns

Feb 08, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- A University of Adelaide forensic pathologist has sounded a worldwide warning of the potential lethal dangers of herbal medicines if taken in large quantities, injected, or combined with prescription drugs.

A paper by Professor Roger Byard published in the US-based Journal of Forensic Sciences outlines the highly toxic nature of many herbal substances, which a large percentage of users around the world mistakenly believe are safe.

"There's a false perception that herbal remedies are safer than manufactured medicines, when in fact many contain potentially lethal concentrations of arsenic, mercury and lead," Professor Byard says.

"These substances may cause serious illnesses, exacerbate pre-existing health problems or result in death, particularly if taken in excess or injected rather than ingested."

Professor Byard says there can also be fatal consequences when some herbal medicines interact with .

"As access to such products is largely unrestricted and many people do not tell their doctor they are taking herbal medicines for fear of ridicule, their contribution to death may not be fully appreciated during a standard autopsy."

An analysis of 251 Asian herbal products found in United States stores identified arsenic in 36 of them, mercury in 35 and lead in 24 of the products.

In one documented case a 5-year-old boy who had ingested 63 grams of "Tibetan herbal vitamins" over a period of four years was diagnosed with lead poisoning. Another case involved a young boy with cancer of the retina whose parents resorted to a traditional Indian remedy that caused arsenic poisoning.

A known as Chan su, used to treat sore throats, boils and heart palpitations, contains the venomous of Chinese toads, which can cause cardiac arrests or even comas, according to Professor Byard.

Other side effects of herbal medicines can include liver, renal and , strokes, movement disorders, and seizures.

"Herbal medicines are frequently mixed with standard drugs, presumably to make them more effective. This can also have devastating results," Professor Byard says.

In his paper he cites the case of an epileptic patient on prescription medicine who had also ingested a Chinese herbal preparation and lapsed into a coma. Cushing's syndrome, a hormonal disorder, has also been linked to the ingestion of steroids and herbal cures mixed together.

Some herbal medicines may also have a variety of effects on standard drugs, according to Professor Byard. St John's Wort can reduce the effects of warfarin and cause intermenstrual bleeding in women taking the oral contraceptive pill.

Gingko and garlic also increase the risk of bleeding with anticoagulants and certain such as Borage Oil and Evening Primrose Oil lower the seizure threshold in epileptics.

Professor Byard says the American Society of Anesthesiologists has recommended its patients discontinue using herbal medicines at least two weeks before surgery because of the risks of herbal and drug interaction, including an increased chance of hemorrhaging.

Herbal medicines have become increasingly popular in western countries in recent years, with an estimated 30% of United States citizens using them, often without their doctor's knowledge.

"Forensic pathologists the world over need to become more aware of the contribution that herbal medicines are playing in a range of deaths, that is not currently recognised," Professor Byard says.

Explore further: Antiseptic prevents deaths in newborns

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User comments : 6

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not rated yet Feb 08, 2010
I find it odd that there are all these poisonous supplements about and there isn't even a published list we can look at to make sure we aren't taking any of them.
not rated yet Feb 08, 2010
A quick web search will yield plenty of info in that regard. What is astonishing is that there is no oversight in terms of quality of manufacture and labeling. But what really tells the tale is the problem of interaction. Is there actually any one out there who isn't aware that mixing meds can produce serious, possibly fatal side effects? And if you go to your doctor, isn't it in your own best interest to be truthful about your activities in regard to your health. There is no cure- pharmaceutical or herbal- for stupidity.
5 / 5 (1) Feb 08, 2010
A lot of people still thinks "Natural" equals "healthy". It is a matter of poor education, made worse by media celebrating everything "natural" without qualifiers. If you get a natural herb extract and mix it with the wrong medicine, you can die, and people need to be made aware of this fact.
1 / 5 (1) Feb 09, 2010
Did these pathologists warn us about poisoned Chinese baby formula, Chinese dog food poisoning, or lead poisoning from Chinese toys?

To associate a global industry with Chinese exports ignores regulatory success in Europe. Is Big Pharma losing revenue to the herbal industry, and only now crying about poisonous Chinese products?

The oldest and most clinically used database for reporting on the efficacy of herbal medicine, herb-drug interactions and safety warnings is the European, Commission E Monographs.

Thousands of doctors in the US also know the Physicians' Desk Reference series of medicine guides, called "PDR for Herbals." With information on hundreds of plants, the guide combines German data with references that let doctors track down additional research in evaluating herbs.
1 / 5 (1) Feb 09, 2010
How many people die from safe prescription drugs?
1 / 5 (1) Feb 10, 2010
Do you know what they call a herbal "remedy" that actually works?

A medicine.

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