news Monday, June 15, 2015 - 05:30

  Even as the controversy over presence of lead in Maggi noodles is yet to die down, a man from Bengaluru is said to be showing symptoms of dementia due to presence of high lead. Doctors believe the lead content has accumulated in his body after continuous intake of some Ayurvedic medicines. "The 65-year-old man was brought to St. John’s Medical College and Hospital in Koramangala, after he exhibited symptoms of dementia like memory loss, irritability, mood swings and confusion, we decided to conduct tests. Relatives of the patient said that he began taking two new Ayurvedic medicines since last year to treat diabetes and cancer. The lead level as per tests were very high," Dr GRK Sharma, head of neurology department at the hospital, told The News Minute. The patient's family told The News Minute that within a month of taking the medicines, the patient showed abnormal symptoms which prompted them to consult doctors. Dr Sharma discovered that the man’s blood contained 150 microgram of lead per 100 ml, which is 10 times higher than the permissible limit. Following this, drugs taken by him were tested at National Referral Centre for Lead Poisoning in India (NRCLPI), which showed that one medicine contained 5,000 ppm (parts per million) of lead while the other contained 10,000 ppm of lead. Is this an isolated incident? Several research studies have shown that few medicines in Ayurveda contain excessive amounts of lead. A study co-authored by Dr Venkatesh of NRCLPI published in Indian Journal of Clinical Biochemistry in 2010 cites three cases of lead poisoning in Bengaluru caused due to consumption of few Ayurvedic medicines. A 58-year-old woman of Indian origin, residing in US, was treated for lead poisoning after Ayurvedic medicines she had been taking to control diabetes was found to contain excess amounts of lead.  A study done by Robert B Saper and others, says that 20.7% of Ayurvedic medicines tested were found to contain lead, arsenic and mercury. As medical rules in New York for pregnant women mandate screening for lead poisoning, six pregnant women who were tested showed high presence of lead due to intake of certain Ayurvedic drugs. But no study seems to have ever found such high levels of lead as was found in the Bengaluru person. What explains such high levels of lead? While doctors say that Ayurvedic medicines as such are not harmful, some preparations which use “bhasma” or ash may contain heavy metals such as lead, arsenic or mercury. “Lead has no biological function in the body, it is a toxic element which may have serious consequences,” says Dr Thupalli Venkatesh, national director at NRCLPI. Dr Venkatesh says that contamination occurs at the stage of “sodhana” or preparation. “The raw materials primarily used are herbal plants and ash in a few select medicines. Today these plants are grown on polluted soil or water used may be contaminated. Additionally, machinery used for preparation of the drug may also contribute to the contamination,” he says. While stating that Ayurvedic medication is “the safest”, he cautions that it must be taken under supervision and one must be careful of quacks distributing unbranded medicines. Both Dr Venkatesh and Ayurvedic doctors at Arya Vaidya Sala in Kottakkal, the leading centre for Ayurvedic treatment in India, seem to agree that the Bengaluru case may have been because of contamination or adulteration of the medicine. Doctors at the Vaidya Sala do not deny the use of heavy metals like lead in preparation of medicine, although it is used indirectly and only after purification, they say. Dr Devi Krishnan who is part of their quality control division says that they refer to classical Ayurvedic texts for preparation of drugs and only a specific quantity is used for each medicine, but not in a “harmful” form. He also attributes the presence of lead to contamination. “Plants absorb fumes from vehicles and the same herbs are used in preparation,” he says. Dr Sharma says consequences of lead poisoning although reversible in early stages; may also cause permanent damage.