Lead and mercury poisonings in herbal products prompt clinic shutdowns

An side look at the now-closed A1 Herbal Ayurvedic Clinic Ltd. in Surrey on Jan. 28.


Cases of lead and mercury poisoning in consumers using toxic herbal products have led to clinic shutdowns, Health Canada seizures and recalls, consumer warnings and new B.C. rules for labs performing urine and blood testing.

On Monday, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) said Fraser Health has shut down a Surrey business called A1 Herbal Ayurvedic Clinic Ltd. after an inspection that also resulted in Health Canada seizing illegal products, ingredients from India and equipment on the premises.

Health Canada conducted the raid in Surrey and at an affiliated clinic in Brampton, Ont., after the BCCDC told the feds about a case of heavy-metal toxicity in a B.C. patient taking products from the Surrey clinic.

“Taking these items can lead to severe illness and even death,” the BCCDC said in a news alert, adding that people who bought products from the clinic and have concerns about their health should see a doctor.

The Surrey clinic operators couldn’t be reached for comment.

Health Canada said it had previously cancelled the A1 Herbal outlet’s natural health-products licence because it hadn’t been inspected or approved by the federal government for safety, effectiveness and quality. The company was, in fact, operating without a necessary Health Canada licence that indicates good practices in manufacturing, packaging and labelling of products.

Ayurvedic products are usually imported from India for customary healing practices. While exposure to lead has decreased substantially because of laws preventing its use in paint, gasoline and other products, it would appear heavy-metal poisoning remains a not insignificant problem in B.C., although data on deaths and illnesses isn’t available.

A report published early in the February B.C. Medical Journal describes another case of toxic lead poisoning in a 64-year old B.C. man who got progressively ill after taking an Ayurvedic herbal remedy he bought in India to “treat” his diabetes. The patient sought medical help for five months before being diagnosed with lead poisoning. He went to various hospital emergency rooms, getting “intensive workups” with CT scans, MRI imaging and endoscopies before being properly diagnosed by an internist who suspected lead poisoning and ordered the proper test.

Dr. Tom Kosatsky, a medical director at the BCCDC and co-author of the journal article, said the eventually recalled product called Quizz had “lots of lead and some mercury” in it and the patient’s symptoms — abdominal pain, dizziness, weight loss and nausea — were consistent with lead poisoning.

Kosatsky said it’s apparent that there are a lot of people suspected of having lead poisoning because B.C. doctors ordered nearly 5,000 tests looking for high levels of mercury and lead in blood and urine last year. Some of the testing is for occupational screenings among people who work with metals at their jobs while other tests are done in those suspected of toxicity from foods or products consumed.

Of all the tests conducted, there were over 100 lab-test results last year that were suspiciously high and required further tests and followup treatment.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said that it’s clear that herbal remedies are popular with consumers. But the public should know they should only buy products that have met Health Canada standards; such information can be found on the product label.

Henry said investigations often show that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Lead toxicity can affect multiple communities, so under the new Public Health Act regulations, labs testing patient specimens will be compelled to report to the BCCDC and to Henry all tests ordered along with results. Heavy metals can be partly eliminated from the body through an intravenous or oral medication process called chelation.

Under the new rules that came into effect earlier this month, the BCCDC will “assess trends in testing and in metal biomarker levels by geography and demography.” And for results that suggest toxicity, the agency will contact doctors for the purposes of conducting follow-ups with patients to nail down the “likely source of exposure.”

Quebec is the only other province that requires such reports to public health, Kosatsky said, adding that Health Canada will soon be releasing clinical guidelines to help doctors identify heavy-metal poisonings and how to manage such cases.

Symptoms of lead and/or mercury poisoning:

Anemia (low iron), changes in blood pressure, concentration problems, kidney and brain damage, memory loss, tremors, headaches, insomnia, constipation, stomach pain, reproductive disorders and miscarriages/stillbirth.

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