Scientists at Australia’s Murdoch University have found traces of endangered animals including the Asiatic black bear and the saiga antelope in fifteen traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) products via DNA sequencing. As such treatments often contain numerous ingredients and are often in pill and powder form, determining exactly what is in them is difficult. Using a deep-sequencing approach, the scientists were able to discover that the 15 TCM products contain toxic chemicals and animal DNA from endangered species, including from animals protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
As a recent PLoS Genetics article by the Murdoch University scientists says, such treatments have been practiced for thousands of years in China; it is only in the past few decades that they have been used outside its borders. More and more, concerns have been raised not only about the efficacy of such treatments but of their safety, and for good reason.
Scientists studying herbal teas, capsules, powders and flakes that had been seized by Australian border officials found that some contained plant agents such as Aristolochic acid, which can cause urinary tract and kidney cancer, and also the herb ephedra, which is potentially poisonous. Furthermore, some of the 68 different plant agencies that scientists identified could be toxic if taken in sufficient quantitiesgbut the amounts of each ingredient were not listed on the outside packacing. Lead researcher Michael Bunce, a Murdoch University Australian Research Council Future Fellow, also noted that one product whose packaging said it was “100 percent Saiga antelope” actually contained quantities of goat and sheep DNA in notable amounts.
Bear paws, as well as bear bile and the animal’s genitalia, are sought after in TCM to treat ailments including cancer, arthritis and impotence. The market for TCM treatments is such that people have recently been caught attempting to smuggle animal parts out of and into China. In 2011, a man from British Columbia was seized with three severed bear paws that he was trying to take to China via the Vancouver International Airport. In January, authorities including the Forestry Police at the Chongqing Airport seized ten severed bear paws. The paws were found in cartons said to being used for shipping seafood and belonging to a logistics company. Photos of the authorities opening the containers and of the bear paws — rear legs severed at the joints — are posted at China Smack.
China needs to take greater efforts and crack down on those who use endangered animals in TCM. As these remedies have been used for so long in China, it is also necessary to educate people in China that such treatments are of highly questionable efficacy and are often not safe. Even more, the U.S. and other countries need to step up efforts to test TCM products and warn consumers that what the packaging says can often be very different from what an herbal tea, powder or pill is actually made of.
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