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Is Traditional Chinese Medicine Poisonous?

One country's medicine is another one's poison

08·29·2013

Is Traditional Chinese Medicine Poisonous?

One country's medicine is another one's poison

08·29·2013

Since the discovery of traditional Chinese herbal medicine by Shennong 5000 years ago, Traditional Chinese Medicine has come a long way. TCM is not only some herbs and animal parts, but a way of living. Although discredited in the west as having no scientific basis, acupuncture, food, and the understanding of how the body works are still many Chinese’s go-to cures for illnesses and other health problems. In the modern age, however, TCM often comes under criticism for disregarding animal rights, falling to greedy capitalism and opportunism, and failing to adapt to the modern age.

In Britain, a press release was recently issued to warn the public of the high levels of toxins in TCM. Sweden has also warned the EU of the high level of arsenic found in Niuhuang Jiedu Pian (牛黄解毒片), as Caixin Online report:

“The release said the drugs are not authorized for sale in Britain, but can be bought on the Internet. ‘People are warned to exercise extreme caution when buying unlicensed medicines as they have not been assessed for safety and quality, and standards can vary widely,’ it says.

The TCMs named include Niuhuang Jiedu Pian for the treatment of tonsillitis, toothaches and other maladies; Bak Foong Pills, often used for the treatment of menstrual pain; and Fabao, used to treat baldness.”

Europe has good reason to be concerned about TCM. Hong Kong, where the influence of TCM is just as deep and widespread as in mainland China, recalled Bak Foong pills for exceeding acceptable levels of lead by two times, and Fabao for exceeding mercury levels by 11 times. Though high level toxins are not found in individual products, the Caixin article continues:

“Apart from being potentially toxic, another common concern is that the herbal remedies often contain pesticide residue.

Two Greenpeace reports issued on July 1 said that out of the 36 kinds of frequently used Chinese herbal products tested in Germany, France, Britain, the Netherlands, Italy, the United States and Canada, pesticide residues were detected in all but one of the products. Among those cited were nine of China’s leading drug brands, such as Tong Ren Tang and Yunnan Baiyao.”

Why are so many TCM products, including top brands, considered poisonous by other countries? Head researcher at China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, Li Lianda explained to Nanfang Daily that it is important to distinguish who’s standards they are surpassing. He notes that although some TCM products exceed the standards set by foreign countries, they are within the levels set in China. While TCM products are tested according to food standards abroad, they meet the standards in the Pharmacopoeia of the People’s Republic of China 中国药典, the Chinese official compendium of drugs. In China, “以毒攻毒” (combat poison with poison) is an old saying. Traditionally, it is believed that a certain dosage of minerals and toxins are good for treating illnesses. The Pharmacopoeia acknowledges the health benefits of toxins, but also sets the standards of their appropriate usages and purity.

Pesticide residue, on the other hand, is something that finds no basis in TCM, but in Chinese farmers’ failure to adapt. China Dialogue points out that Chinese herb farmers are largely unaware of the risks that come with pesticides. Some farmers use banned products, while others would use three times the standard amount to kill pests. Because of their lack of understanding, not only do they think that pesticide residue can be washed away by the rain, but they themselves do not wear protective gear when farming. Their herbs are eventually be used to make TCM products.

As the west panics over TCM’s potential poisonous effects, high levels of toxins are of less concern for TCM’s Chinese customers. For them, another ancient Chinese saying is deep-rooted in their heart: 是药三分毒, all medicines are toxic.