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He asked another Pfizer chemist, Willard Welch, to synthesize some previously unexplored tametraline derivatives. Welch then prepared stereoisomers of this compound, which were tested in vivo by animal behavioral scientist Albert Weissman. Ian Musgrave and Michael Bunce receive funding from the National Health and Medical research Council to study adulteration and Contamination of herbal medicine. Many people take herbal medicines, including traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) thinking they are doing something positive for their health. Making sure that a tablet claiming to have 500 milligrams of paracetamol really does contain 500 milligrams of paracetamol is relatively easy, there are established assays to measure paracetamol routinely. Most herbal medicines are pills or powders that have removed all trace of structure we would normally use to identify plants, and many plants have no chemical signature that is able to definitively identify them. Our research, which has just been published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, goes a long way to answering that. For the first time, our group of researchers from Curtin University, Murdoch University and the University of Adelaide have combined some of the most cutting-edge and sensitive analytical techniques to screen a set of traditional Chinese medicines available in Australia. We used a three-pronged approach, combining DNA sequencing, toxicology and heavy metal testing to elucidate the true composition of 26 TCMs purchased at random from the Adelaide Markets; most were either for colds and flu’s or for general wellness. Summary of the contaminants in traditional Chinese medicines (TCMs) tested in this study that contained toxic metals, undeclared or illegal contents as determined by DNA, toxicological, and heavy metal screening methods. Nearly nine in ten of these medicines had some form of undeclared substance in them as either adulteration or contamination. While around half of these medicines were not listed with the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), and should not have been available for purchase, contaminants were found in both TGA-listed and non-listed medicines.
Among the pharmaceuticals found were paracetamol, antihistamines, anti-inflammatories and antibiotics, and stimulants such as pseudoephedrine. Significant levels of toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium and lead were found in over half the medicines. Whether a compound is a result of deliberate adulteration or contamination has different regulatory implications.


One TCM claiming to enhance weight gain with appetite stimulation contained pharmaceutically relevant levels of the drug cyproheptadine, a known appetite enhancer. In another, ephedrine was found without any evidence of DNA from plants of the Ephedra genus, suggesting that in both cases the drug was deliberately added. This also highlights the importance of informing your health practitioner if you are taking TCMs as adulterants might interact with conventional medication to cause adverse effects.
Unlike countries such as the United States, where many herbal medicines are regulated as dietary supplements, in Australia, herbal medicines are regulated through the TGA as medicines. In many ways it is an honour system, where the herbal medicines sponsor says there’s no evidence of harm, and they hold documentation that shows this. The TGA uses post marketing follow-up to check for compliance with the “listed” medicine regulations. Using a combination of new molecular approaches, our survey found a much higher level of adulteration and contamination in TCMs than found in the TGA’s surveys.
The herbal medicine industry is a billion dollar international industry, with products travelling all over the world.
Globally, we need a better auditing “toolkit” to ensure consumers of herbal medicines, as well as people testing their efficacy, are not being misled. This research, we think, provides a roadmap to more effective regulation of the herbal medicine sector. We use a Creative Commons Attribution NoDerivatives licence, so you can republish our articles for free, online or in print.
And what about all the other possible contaminants and adulterants that could hide in the complex brew of chemicals from herbal medicines?
Each TCM tested is represented in the diagram as a tablet; blue shading on tablets indicate AUST L listed medicines, red shading are not-listed with the TGA regulatory body. The most concerning finding was snow leopard DNA (snow leopards are an endangered species), which was detected in one medicine. Of particular concern were drugs such as warfarin, which have significant potential for harm if not taken under medical supervision, and ephedrine, which is banned in Australia.


In at least four of these medicines following the directions on the label would expose you to over ten times the TGA’s regulatory limit for heavy metals in medicines. In TCM materials, for instance, heavy metals or toad venom may be added as part of the treatment.
Lead arsenate has been used as a pesticide, and the high levels may come from persistently contaminated soils. Definitely avoid any medicine that does not have an ARTG listing (it should have a number like AUST L 123456 on the front of the bottle). Mostly, the evidence is historical, claiming that people have been using it for generations without evidence of harm. This follow-up consists of random surveys as well as targeted surveys from concerns raised by consumers. Around 83% of complimentary medicines surveyed were deemed to be non-compliant, with 6% failing due to product composition, formulation or manufacturing. Adding DNA ingredient screening to the TGA’s armoury of analytical methods would help ensure that undeclared ingredients are not included in the herbal medicines we consume. Arch Gen Psychiatry -- Early Coadministration of Clonazepam With Sertraline for Panic Disorder, July 2001, Goddard et al.
In contamination, the material is added inadvertently, for example, through unclean workplaces or herbs grown on contaminated soil. Unlike registered medicines such as paracetamol and warfarin, the evidence required for approval is much less stringent.
As well, if the compounds are on the TGA’s list of “generally recognised are safe” materials extensive safety testing is not required.




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