From The New York Times
Like many people these days, Lori Potter, a 50-year-old massage therapist living on Kauai, Hawaii, has explored alternative healing for everything from headaches to skin problems. So when she wanted to boost her immune system and lower her stress levels a few years ago, she made an appointment with a visiting practitioner of ayurveda, a medical system that originated in India thousands of years ago and has gained wide popularity in the United States.
He prescribed herbal supplements, which he tested himself for impurities, to help boost her immunity. Soon, Ms. Potter said, she felt more energetic and her digestion was better. After two years, the practitioner stopped visiting the island, and she has not taken any supplements since, she said, because she has not met any practitioners she trusts.
“You never know what’s really in these supplements,” she said. “This is serious stuff, and you can’t just take them without knowing the source.”
Ms. Potter may be right to be wary. A report in the Aug. 27 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association found that nearly 21 percent of 193 ayurvedic herbal supplements bought online, produced in both India and the United States, contained lead
. Almost all of the products were sold through American Web sites. “Some manufacturers advertised that they test for metals, and their products still had them,” said Dr. Robert B. Saper, assistant professor at the Boston University School of Medicine and lead author of the study. The average consumer, he said, “has no way of determining which supplement is free of contaminants and which isn’t.”
No one knows the exact numbers of arsenic, mercury or lead poisoning illnesses in the United States related to ayurvedic medicine. Dr. Saper estimated that there have been 80 cases since 1978, but he believes that is just the “tip of the iceberg.” In 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a total of 12 cases of lead poisoning associated with ayurvedic products in Texas, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York State and California.
While the Western medical community may be concerned about Dr. Saper’s findings, many ayurvedic practitioners and holistic health centers are less so. Of the dozen spas, wellness centers and practitioners contacted for this article, all said they stood behind their products. Some suppliers said they believed that the levels of heavy metals in their ayurvedic products were no greater than in many Food and Drug Administration-approved medicines.
Kevin Casey, the chief of Banyan Botanicals, a maker of ayurvedic products in Ashland, Ore., sells three items that are on Dr. Saper’s list of contaminated supplements.
After the study came out, Mr. Casey said, some of his 15,000 clients, who include practitioners and consumers, called. He said he alleviated their fears after he explained that his products are sent to outside laboratories, and they meet “the standards that we adhere to.”
He added that sales had not suffered since the study, which has “created a dialogue — people are talking about it and understanding that there is the presence of heavy metals, but it doesn’t mean it’s toxic or dangerous.”
Dr. Saper disagreed. Even with relatively low levels of lead in the bloodstream, he said, “a person can be relatively asymptomatic but the lead can still impact their I.Q. It can reduce their cognitive function and increase blood pressure.”
The F.D.A. does not specify maximum acceptable concentrations or daily dose limits for contaminants in dietary supplements. Instead, the onus is on the manufacturer to ensure that its products are safe. What’s more, there are no universally accepted standards for herbal supplements. The Food and Agricultural Organization/World Health Organization Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives Secretariat recommends that a 70-kilogram, or 154-pound, person consume no more than 250 micrograms of lead, 50 micrograms of mercury and 150 micrograms of arsenic per day.
The National Sanitation Foundation International Dietary Supplement Standard, which certifies dietary supplements and ingredients for purity, suggests a daily limit of 20 micrograms of lead, 20 for mercury and 10 for arsenic. California Proposition 65 has limits of 0.5 microgram of lead per day and 10 micrograms of arsenic per day. (There are currently no guidelines for mercury.) But, as Wynn Werner, president of the National Ayurvedic Medical Association pointed out, California does not prohibit sales of these products, but “rather requires a specific warning to the consumer if a product contains these elements above its limits.” None of the tainted supplements in Dr. Saper’s study met the standards for lead set forth by California Proposition 65.