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A History of Heavy Metals
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亓官先生

Dear Editor:

The November cover story” A History of Heavy Metals” reported on the role that heavy metals play in modern life. The use of heavy metals in Chinese herb medicine should not be overlooked.

According to reports by major hospitals in Taiwan, a large number of cases of heavy metals intoxication have occurred over the past years because older people have insisted that newborn infants be fed with “pa-pao-san”, or “ Eight Treasures Powder”.

( A Chinese herb medicine believed to relieve Tai-tu, or fetal toxin), leading to damage of their nervous system or even death. A joint study conducted in 1991 by the Consumer Foundation and The Medical Inspection Bureau of Drugs and Food in the Department of Health found that one fouth of the “pa-pao-san” used in Taiwan

Contains an excess amount of lead.

In  August 1992,  the pediatric intensive care unit of Tri-Service General Hospital received a seven-month-old male infant suffering from intractable seizure attack.

It turned out that he had been given a certain Chinese herb medicine that contained 430  ppm of lead for as long as one month. Four months after medication ceased he still has a high concentration of lead in his blood, enough to be diagnosed as lead poisoning under the criteria set by the U.S. Center of Disease Control and Prevention.

The concept of fetal toxin first became prevalent during the Sung Dynasty.

Medical experts at the time believed that it could be cured by hsiung-huang ( realgar ) and niu-huang( cow-bezoare), large amount of both drugs were used in medicine for infants. Cinnabar ( mercuric sulfide) believed to remove excess sputum and relieve Ching-feng (infant convulsion disease), was widely used in various kinds of medicine, as well. There are even records that shui-yin (metallic mercury) was taken directly by the patient during the Sung, Yuan, Ming and Ching Dynasties. Cinnabar, realgar, cow-bezoare and other minerals were subsequently used in large quantities in “pa-pao-san”.

Originally, no lead-containing ingredients were used in the preparation of pa-pao-san. large amount of cinnabar were, however, in short supply and because cinnabar was expensive, some Chinese pharmacists substituted other mineral in gredients, such as

Huang-tan(yellow lead) or chien-tan(red lead or minium—the scientific name is lead tetraoxide), which are similar to cinnabar in color. The result of this misuse was numerous cases of lead poisoning in newborn infants.

Toxicological studies revealed that heavy metal poisoning damages every system of the body. In acute poisoning, ingested heavy metals cause celar damage to the digestive system, producing nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, colic pain or tarry stool.

 

Inhaled in the lungs, they can cause necrotic bronchitis, pneumonia , pulmonary edema and pneumothorax. In chronic poisoning, the central nervous system and hematopoietic system are especially sensitive. Once they enter the body, heavy metals are difficult to be removed from the body. The half-life of lead in the bones, for instance, is estimated to be more than 20 years. Long term accumulation of heavy metals must not be ignored. The U.S. federal law maintains strict safety and limitation value of heavy metals contained in foods.

The concept of fetal toxin originated from ancient misunderstanding of infectious diseases with skin eruptions. Red lead and cinnabar are still used in Chinese herb medicine today, in spite of scientific evidence, resulting in heavy metal poisoning

cases in newborn period.

I hope that the health department of the government will extend regulation to Chinese herb medicine. Until its safety can be assured, the wide-spread use of Chinese herb medicine among the public is not appropriate.

Doctor Chi

December, 1992

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