Agency demands greater controls on herbal remedies

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A warning on the safety of traditional Chinese medicines was issued yesterday because a growing number have been found to contain "dangerous and illegal" ingredients.

A warning on the safety of traditional Chinese medicines was issued yesterday because a growing number have been found to contain "dangerous and illegal" ingredients.

The Medicines Control Agency, a government body, said it could give no "assurances" on the safety of many Chinese remedies. More than 80 per cent of all herbal medicines sold in Britain are unlicensed because the industry, which has enjoyed a boom in recent years, is unregulated.

Professor Alastair Breckenridge, chairman of the agency, said: "We have informed ministers that we can provide no assurance that traditional Chinese medicines [TCMs] on the UK market are safe.

"We recognise that many people value herbal remedies ... However, there is clear evidence that standards used in the production of some TCMs on the UK market are, at best, unreliable. I am concerned that we continue to find further examples of TCMs containing potentially dangerous and often illegal ingredients," he said.

The agency's advice follows a string of cases where patients' health has been badly damaged by Chinese remedies. More than 100 Belgian women suffered kidney failure after taking a slimming product containing Aristolochia, a herb that contains carcinogenic acids. Aristolochia is banned in Britain but is still found in dozens of remedies. In 1999, two British women suffered renal failure after taking unlicensed Chinese remedies for eczema.

Heavy metals such as mercury and arsenic have been found in some remedies and creams for eczema and psoriasis can contain prescription-only steroids. Skin-whitening products containing psora- lea, a fruit extract, have left patients with severe blistering when exposed to sunlight.

In the past year, the agency has prosecuted three suppliers for using arsenic and steroids, and issued 13 formal cautions about illegal ingredients. The agency wants the European Union to require labels identifying the therapeutic qualities and side-effects of all herbal remedies. The directive would impose quality controls on manufacturers and suppliers for the first time. The agency is to extend the list of banned toxic ingredients to include Delphinium zalil, Euphorbia, Dryopteris and Solanum and the seeds of Gingko biloba .

Michael McIntyre, chairman of the European Herbal Practitioners Association, welcomed the controls on a sector he said was "completely unregulated". He urged consumers to consult professional practitioners who were insured to practise.

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