Official investigations into dangerous Chinese herbal medicines have reached an all-time high.

The Government's medicines safety agency has disclosed that the number of "live" cases involving traditional Chinese medicines (TCMs), which have caused side-effects such as heart damage and liver failure, has quadrupled in the first half of this year.

The surge in new cases - now running at a rate of 10 a month - has heightened anxiety over the import of herbs and compounds with dangerous levels of heavy metals, pesticides, banned chemicals and even non-herbal additives such as steroids.

In recent weeks, senior officials in the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) have stepped up their warnings about the risks of taking some herbal medicines after a spate of alarming cases.

The agency has issued warnings about a Chinese medicine called fufang lu hui jiaonang after a wholesaler in Essex and a shop in Surrey were fined more than £5,000 for selling doses that contained levels of the heavy metal mercury 117,000 times higher than is legal in food in the UK.

Earlier this year, Anna Yang, a herbalist in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, was convicted of mis-selling her medicines as "herbal only" when in fact they contained banned chemicals and prescription-only drugs. They included one substance, aristolochia, which was banned in 1997 after causing a death in Belgium and kidney failure in two British women.

The MHRA recently issued a warning over another TCM ingredient, a tuber called polygonum multiflorum used as an anti-ageing remedy, after patients reported adverse reactions such as hepatitis and jaundice.

Its investigations into dangerous herbal medicines normally run at about 30 a year. But already this year, the MHRA has handled 70 separate cases - the vast majority of which involved Chinese medicines. Officials say that local council trading standards officers, health officials and police have intensified their scrutiny of Chinese medicine stores, which have mushroomed in many towns and cities.

These new disclosures will increase pressure on health and Home Office ministers to introduce tough statutory regulation of herbal medicine - a step the Government promised to take after an inquiry by the House of Lords in 2000.

Michael McIntyre, of the European Herbal Practitioners Alliance, said he had been campaigning for 13 years for his industry to be regulated. While about 1,000 TCM doctors had signed the UK's main voluntary code of conduct on Chinese medicine, up to 2,000 practitioners had not.

"Most are very well trained, reputable and hard-working practitioners," he said. The major issue was the failure of some shops to check the quality and safety of the herbs they import from China. "I unreservedly condemn the supply and use of herbs imported without knowledge of where they're getting them from. Until there is good quality control, there is a problem."

The MHRA urged consumers to check that their suppliers were selling approved remedies. "The agency recognises that some people value herbal remedies, but there is evidence that standards used in the production of some TCMs are unreliable," a spokesman said.

THE HERBAL WATCHLIST

Fufang Lu Hui Jiaonang

Used for: Clearing the bowels, treating constipation and heartburn.

Dangers: Often has high levels of mercury, which can cause kidney damage.

St John's Wort

Used for: Widely taken for depression.

Dangers: It interferes with many prescription drugs.

Polygonum Multiflorum Root Tuber

Used for: Treating greying and receding hair.

Dangers: Suspected of causing liver diseases such as hepatitis and jaundice.

Black Cohosh

Used for: Helps to treat the menopause.

Dangers: Linked to rare cases of liver damage, including jaundice. Warnings are now added to labels.

Feverfew

Used for: Has been taken to reduce fevers for centuries.

Dangers: Not to be used during pregnancy or while taking blood-thinning drugs.

Valerian

Used for: Ancient remedy for anxiety and to aid sleep.

Dangers: Unwise to take with anti-anxiety drugs because it will double the sedative effect.

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