Beware: Chinese herbs that can do you harm

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A national collection of Chinese herbs should be set up at Kew Gardens to reduce the incidence of poisoning from traditional remedies, according to a group of senior doctors.

More than 100 cases of poisoning linked to the use of Chinese and other traditional remedies will be listed in a report which follows a two-year investigation by doctors into the increasing use of "natural" drugs in Britain.

There is mounting concern about the lack of control over imported raw Chinese herbs used to make up such remedies here. There is also concern about the content of pre-packed formulations. Some herbs are badly contaminated with heavy metals and other toxins, while others have been wrongly labelled and sold on as a particular herb when they may be something quite different.

Serious liver damage is among side-effects blamed on toxic alternative medicines and there has been at least one death in Britain. Thirteen cases of serious digestive upset were also reported last year and leading medical journals regularly print letters from doctors with patients who have suffered alarming side-effects from various remedies.

A report to be published in the next few weeks will call for the setting up of a national Chinese herb collection or herbarium at Kew Gardens so that the individual plants, their appearance and the active ingredients and potentially toxic chemicals they contain can be investigated by experts to build up a data reference base.

The proposed herbarium, which would cost pounds 500,000 and house at least 500 types of herb, would be the first of its kind outside China, and it is estimated it would be self-financing after four years.

Alternative remedies have been studied by the National Poisons Unit at Guy's Hospital, London, and a report on the findings will be published shortly by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

"We feel very strongly that there is an urgent need to set up the collection because we are getting so many complications and poisonings," Virginia Murray, a consultant toxicologist who heads the traditional-remedies project at the unit, said. "Some of these herbs are quite frightening and there have been terrible cases of liver damage."

Ken Lloyd, president of the Register of Chinese Herbal Practitioners, and a clinical practitioner and lecturer in the subject, welcomed the call for a national herbarium. "The first rule for any practitioner, Chinese herbalist or conventional doctor is 'do no harm' ... We will support anything that encourages a responsible attitude," he said.

The report is expected to recommend increased monitoring of the booming market in alternative remedies. A number of universities have been setting up degree courses in the subject; Westminster advertises a BSc in traditional Chinese medicine.

There have recently been calls for a registration scheme for practitioners. Doctors were warned last week in the British Medical Journal about the possibility that a herbal product containing an adulterant herb which can damage the central nervous system had been imported. Dr Murray said: "There is an urgent need for proper and continuing surveillance. The effects we have found range from minor to significant poisoning and even death."