Snow leopard DNA and heavy metals, including arsenic, continue to be found in Chinese medicines in Australia, researchers have found.
Research published by a group of scientists from Curtin University, Murdoch University, and the University of Adelaide in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, found nine out of 10 Chinese medicines had a substance in them that wasn’t declared on the label.
The researchers are now studying hundreds of herbal preparations from across Australia to determine exactly how widespread the issue is.
Of particular concern to them is the finding that the DNA of an endangered species, snow leopard, was contained in one medicine bought over the counter in Adelaide.
“You can eat a snow leopard from its nose to its tail and you would still have sore joints,” the University of Adelaide’s Professor Roger Byard, a co-author of the study, told The Huffington Post Australia.
He said it was shocking the substance of an endangered animal was included, especially when it was medicinally useless.
Only 4,000-6,500 snow leopards remain in the wild, with most residing in remote parts of Central Asia. The leopard is hunted for use in traditional medicines because it is believed it can cure arthritis.
Professor Byard said it was important Australian authorities look into the trade of Chinese medicines that contain undeclared animal substances like that of the snow leopard.
“We need to be much more vigilant, and when something like snow leopard has been discovered, it needs to be pursued,” he told HuffPost Australia.
Half of those herbal medicines analysed by the research group were found to contain undeclared plant and animal species. The medicines purportedly treat a range of ailments, including erectile dysfunction, as an aphrodisiac, asthma, and for allergies.
Other animal DNA found in the group’s research included cat, dog, and rats, though the researchers said those findings were likely the result of contamination as opposed to them being intentionally added.
In addition to the animal DNA detected, toxic heavy metals like arsenic and lead were found in more than half the medicines analysed.
In one preparation, ten times the upper limit of safe arsenic consumption for humans was detected.
Professor Byard said people shouldn’t be alarmed about Chinese medicines, but aware of the risks some can pose.
“Given the number of people taking herbal medicines, most of them are safe. But we have had two cases where people have died,” he said.
“One woman developed liver failure, because of a mixture of herbs she was taking. Another fellow died when he injected the traditional Chinese herbal product chan su, which contains toad venom, believing it to be MDMA.”
He is also concerned about the impact of the production of such medicines on endangered wildlife like the snow leopard.
“An overseas study says traditional Chinese medicines are a significant global driver in the illegal wildlife trade,” Byard told HuffPost Australia.
“We tend to focus on ivory and decorative things, we don’t tend to think about the traditional medicines side, but there are a lot of people taking traditional medicines,” he said.
Back home, Australia’s seahorse population is being decimated amid fears that illegal poachers are stealing them from Sydney Harbour and trading them on the black market.
The protected animals are dried and ground for use in Chinese medicine in a bid to treat everything from erectile dysfunction to skin rashes, while buyers are also picking them up on the cheap to put in aquariums in Australia and Asia.