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Curtin University's Professor Michael BunceUpdated

Some traditional Chinese medicines are laced with pharmaceuticals, heavy metals and even endangered animals, new research has revealed.

Traditional Chinese medicines (TCMs) have long been thought by some as a more natural, herbal approach to curing ailments.

But now a study carried out by Curtin University, Murdoch University and the University of Adelaide has found 90 per cent of 26 widely available medicines tested were not fit for human consumption.

Key points:

  • Study found 90pc of 26 widely available medicines not fit for human consumption
  • Half contained illegal substances, including toxic metals, prescription medication, stimulants
  • Some contained arsenic, lead, Viagra, rat poison and DNA of endangered species
  • Researcher says 'honour system' of TGA listing being exploited

Half contained illegal substances, including toxic metals, prescription medications, stimulants and animal DNA, none of which were listed on the product's label.

TCMs are a multi-billion-dollar industry and it is estimated 50 per cent of Australians have used alternative therapies at some point.

Researchers employed a new method involving highly sensitive DNA sequencing, toxicology and heavy metal testing to assess the composition of the TCMs.

"If we don't know what's in them, it's very difficult to predict the interactions... that's obviously of great concern if they are been given to children, or pregnant women, the potential outcomes there are very serious.

Murdoch University biochemist Dr Garth Maker

The study does not disclose the brands of medicines checked, but confirmed they were purchased in Adelaide and available for sale in retailers and markets nationally.

Curtin University lead researcher Professor Michael Bunce said the results were shocking.

"Half of them have illegal ingredients in them, we've determined from DNA, half of them have got pharmaceuticals added to them that are clearly synthetic in nature and have not come from natural compounds, " he said.

"Another proportion of them have heavy metals beyond the safe ingestion recommendations ... 90 per cent of them are really not fit for human consumption."

Murdoch University biochemist Dr Garth Maker said contamination by undisclosed pharmaceuticals was a health concern.

He said over-the-counter drugs like paracetamol and ibuprofen were found but also steroids, blood thinner warfarin and even sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra.

"We were surprised but at the same time, there definitely seems to be an element of deception in designing these things to have a specific outcome, " he said.

"They may contain ephedrine, which will give a lot of people a buzz, and therefore they feel good and they think 'this is fantastic medicine, I should keep taking it'."

Arsenic, lead, strychnine found in some medicines

Arsenic, cadmium and lead were found in some of the Chinese medicine.

One of the herbal concoctions contained over 10 times the recommended daily limit for arsenic exposure.

Another contained strychnine, which is used as a rat poison and at lower levels as a performance-enhancing drug.

"Obviously if someone has been taking this for a very long time, they may have unwittingly exposed themselves to reasonably high levels of the poison strychnine, " Dr Maker said.

"If we don't know what's in them, it's very difficult to predict the interactions, and also [they can be] taken with other medications.

"That's obviously of great concern if they [have] been given to children, or pregnant women, the potential outcomes there are very serious, " he said.

DNA of endangered species detected

Professor Bunce said one of most alarming results was the DNA presence of endangered species.

"One herbal medicine that's for sale had trace amounts of snow leopard DNA in it, " Professor Bunce said.

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