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Folk Medicine

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Lead has been found in some traditional (folk) medicines used by East Indian, Indian, Middle Eastern, West Asian, and Hispanic cultures. Folk medicines can contain herbs, minerals, metals, or animal products. Lead and other heavy metals are put into certain folk medicines because these metals are thought to be useful in treating some ailments. Sometimes lead accidentally gets into the folk medicine during grinding, during coloring, or from the package.

People selling a folk medicine may not know whether it contains lead. You cannot tell if a medicine has lead by looking at or tasting it. Consuming even small amounts of lead can be harmful. There is no safe blood lead level. Lead poisoning from folk medicines can cause illness and even death.

What to do if you or your child may have taken a medicine that contains lead
See your health care provider. He or she can perform a blood test to see whether you or your child have been exposed to lead and, if so, can recommend treatment options. Most adults and children with elevated blood lead levels do not have any symptoms. As blood lead levels increase, so does lead’s effects on health.

How to tell if herbal medicines or folk medicines contain lead
You only can tell for sure by having the medicine tested in a laboratory. If you think that you may have consumed lead in a folk medicine, see your health care provider for a blood test.

Which folk medicines are known to contain lead
Lead has been found in powders and tablets given for arthritis, infertility, upset stomach, menstrual cramps, colic and other illnesses.

Greta and Azarcon (also known as alarcon, coral, luiga, maria luisa, or rueda) are Hispanic traditional medicines taken for an upset stomach (empacho), constipation, diarrhea, and vomiting. They are also used on teething babies. Greta and Azarcon are both fine orange powders with lead content as high as 90%.

Ghasard, an Indian folk medicine, has also been found to contain lead. It is a brown powder used as a tonic.

Ba-baw-san is a Chinese herbal remedy that contains lead. It is used to treat colic pain or to pacify young children.

UPDATE: Daw Tway is a digestive aid used in Thailand and Myanmar (Burma). Analysis of Daw Tway samples showed them to contain as much as 970 parts per million (ppm) of lead. The Daw Tway samples also contained high arsenic levels, as great as 7,100 ppm.

Additional information about Daw Tway is available on the Indiana State Department of Health website: [PDF - 108 KB]

Other folk medicines that may contain lead are listed at