Tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine’s heavy pol­lu­tion threat­ens lives

China Daily (Canada) - - CHINA - By LI YANG


The dif­fi­culty that tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine (TCM) meets in en­ter­ing the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket is not caused by the so-called prej­u­dice of for­eign­ers as many Chi­nese con­ve­niently sup­pose, but by heavy metal pol­lu­tion and pes­ti­cide residue.

Yet, in the home mar­ket, TCM’s pop­u­lar­ity in­creases con­tin­u­ously as an al­ter­na­tive to the ex­pen­sive Western medicine and di­etary sup­ple­ment for China’s fast ag­ing so­ci­ety.

The old-brand TCM re­tail stores in Shang­hai and Bei­jing are al­ways crowded and whole­sale mar­kets boom.

Yulin won the ti­tle of “South China Medicine Cap­i­tal” last month. The govern­ment of the small city in Guangxi Zhuang au­ton­o­mous re­gion cel­e­brated the ti­tle with its giver — the China As­so­ci­a­tion of Tra­di­tional Chi­nese Medicine, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Yulin used to be a trade cen­ter of TCM in an­cient China, and to­day pro­duces large amounts of TCM raw ma­te­ri­als in its moun­tains, and its whole­sale mar­ket sells about $1 bil­lion of such ma­te­ri­als.

In China, there are mar­kets of sim­i­lar scale in the four old medicine cap­i­tals: Bozhou of An­hui, Zhang­shu of Jiangxi, Yuzhou of He­nan and Anguo of He­bei.

In the Yulin mar­ket, the eye­open­ing medicine ma­te­ri­als rang­ing from dried sea­horses and cen­tipedes to seal penises are ac­com­pa­nied by the sell­ers’ elo­quent pro­mo­tion, with one mes­sage: ev­ery­thing cures.

But some of them kill, not be­cause of their own poi­sonous, which can be trans­formed while pro­cess­ing with the other in­gre­di­ent ma­te­ri­als, but be­cause of some pol­lu­tants from the pes­ti­cide and pol­luted soil.

In 2011, drug ad­min­is­tra­tions in Hong Kong re­called three kinds of TCM from the Chi­nese main­land be­cause of heavy-metal pol­lu­tants in them.

Canada and the United King­dom warned con­sumers last year about the heavy-metal pol­lu­tion in some TCM prod­ucts ex­ported from China.

Last year, Green Peace, a non-profit en­vi­ron­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion in Hong Kong found nearly half of the TCM it sam­pled — which in­volved many well- known TCM brands — in Hong Kong and nine main cities in the Chi­nese main­land con­tained pes­ti­cide residues.

But when these mes­sages are re­ported back to the Chi­nese main­land, all rel­e­vant TCM deal­ers and pro­duc­ers re­mained silent about them. The TCM ad­min­is­tra­tion de­part­ments also played down the “im­ported” news and sim­ply re­sponded that they would strengthen the non-com­pul­sory qual­ity check, a tooth­less rule that was passed 12 years ago.

The hoopla in Yulin’s TCM trade fair last month, which was at­tended by all key play­ers in the field, in­di­cates that pol­lu­tion is­sues siz­zling from two years be­fore have not af­fected the in­dus­try.

Ven­dors in Yulin, from which al­most all of the pop­u­lar TCM brands buy raw ma­te­ri­als, said their busi­ness is good.

Last year, the over­all pro­duc­tion value of China’s TCM in­dus­try, which con­sists of 1,500 en­ter­prises, hit 410 bil­lion yuan ($65.81 bil­lion), about twice that of five years ago, among which 14 bil­lion yuan is for ex­port, an in­crease of 16 per­cent year-on-year.

The boom­ing home mar­ket does not mean an im­prove­ment in su­per­vi­sion. The test list of the US drug ad­min­is­tra­tion con­sists of more than 360 kinds of pes­ti­cides. Ger­many tests 325 kinds, and Canada 251. Only 90 ap­pear in the Chi­nese test list.

The Chi­nese watch­dogs only test the sam­ples sent by the pro­duc­ers, and sel­dom con­duct ca­sual in­spec­tion in the mar­ket.

The su­per­vi­sion for the raw ma­te­ri­als of TCM, like some plants, an­i­mal parts and in­sects, is dif­fi­cult be­cause there is not a clear clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tem in the field.

None of the busi­ness, food, drug and agri­cul­tural in­spec­tion au­thor­i­ties thinks it should be their sole re­spon­si­bil­ity to check such a va­ri­ety of The over­all pro­duc­tion value of

TCM in 2013.


The value of TCM ex­ported in



The amount of China’s land con­tam­i­nated by heavy metals

and overuse of pes­ti­cides. sun­dries. But even when they work to­gether, no par­ties take the job se­ri­ously.

Most Chi­nese con­sumers are kept in the dark about the loose stan­dards and qual­ity in­spec­tion of the TCM in­dus­try.

The TCM en­ter­prises, some of which are old brands dat­ing back to Qing Dy­nasty (16441911), pro­mote their prod­ucts by play­ing up deep-rooted con­cepts of Chi­nese that TCM are nat­u­ral prod­ucts, good for people’s health and much less poi­sonous than Western medicines. The Fact is few raw ma­te­ri­als for TCM to­day are nat­u­ral any more.

Af­ter 2000, the wild herbs and an­i­mals in China could not meet the ris­ing de­mand for TCM from home and abroad.

People started plant­ing herbs and rais­ing an­i­mals and in­sects for the mar­ket. The in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion of the herbal trade, which was mostly done by in­di­vid­ual farm­ers and col­lec­tors in moun­tains be­fore, ex­poses the herbs and an­i­mals di­rectly to ar­ti­fi­cial pol­lu­tions of chemical fer­til­iz­ers, pes­ti­cides and heavy metals in the soil.

The of­fi­cial sur­vey shows, among the 10 largest rivers and 63 ma­jor lakes in China, nearly 40 per­cent can­not pro­vide drink­able wa­ter, and 16.1 per­cent of land is con­tam­i­nated by heavy metals and over use of pes­ti­cides.

The en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­lu­tion is one root cause for China’s food safety is­sues. The herbs planted in farms are also vic­tims.

Yet, com­pared with the note­wor­thy food-safety is­sue, TCM safety has long been ig­nored in the agenda col­lec­tively set by the in­dus­try, a num­ber of re­search in­sti­tutes and as­so­ci­a­tions that live on it.

China’s TCM in­dus­try is prob­a­bly go­ing through a sim­i­lar cri­sis as the one for China’s dairy in­dus­try.

Be­fore 2008, it was an open se­cret in China’s dairy in­dus­try that many en­ter­prises used melamine, a harm­ful chemical, to im­prove the protein con­tent of their prod­ucts. Were it not that a busi­ness re­porter, who died re­cently of a strange dis­ease, found the link be­tween dozens of sick ba­bies in­flicted with kid­ney stones in poor west China with the for­mula pow­der they took in 2008, the Chi­nese would still be guz­zling the melamine milk.

Some ven­dors use for­bid­den chem­i­cals to pre­serve and beau­tify them, which adds new fa­tal pol­lu­tants to the drugs.

The raw ma­te­ri­als pro­duced by the plant­ing and an­i­mal breed­ing farms al­ready show much weaker ef­fi­cacy de­sired by doc­tors than the wild ones.

The loose su­per­vi­sion and lack of self-dis­ci­pline in the mar­ket keep TCM a deficit trade for China.

Al­though China is the largest raw ma­te­rial provider, Ja­pan and South Korea pro­duced nearly 80 per­cent of TCM prod­ucts be­cause of their higher stan­dards and strict checks in the TCM world.

A wor­ri­some ten­dency in China is the TCM in­dus­try, with the schol­ars and ad­min­is­tra­tors be­hind it are spoiled by the big easy mar­ket at home, which is largely dom­i­nated by home brands. As long as con­sumers do not re­al­ize the dam­age done by the poi­sonous TCM to their health, the in­dus­try can con­tinue to make easy money at home.

Un­like the food safety, a con­ve­nient shield for drugs is that people be­lieve sick people die of their dis­eases, but not the medicines they take to treat the dis­eases.

The old in­de­pen­dent vet­eran TCM doc­tors, who were ac­tive in grass­roots vil­lages for thou­sands of years, are dy­ing out in China. It means the people, who are in­de­pen­dent from the in­ter­est groups of the TCM in­dus­try and have the ex­per­tise to dif­fer­en­ti­ate good medicine from bad medicine, be­come fewer and fewer.

Money talks in the drug in­dus­try, some­times at the costs of lives. John Mengda Fu and Huo Yan con­trib­uted to this story.

Whole­sale mar­ket of raw ma­te­ri­als for tra­di­tional Chi­nese medicine in Yulin of Guangxi.

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