UK regulators sent out a warning to the public on 19 February 2013 regarding what they said was the potential for consumers to be poisoned by unlicensed Chinese medicines imported into the country.
At least four "herbal" products were known to contain "excessive levels" of mercury or lead, regulators with the UK's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said.
Those pills--Bak Foong Pills, Fung Shing Paij Tian-Ma Wan, Shi Hu Ye Guang Wan, and Nai Chang Ming Yan Pills-are marketed by its manufacturer as being capable of treating general aches and pains or poor eyesight.
But even as those claims remain untested and the medicines unlicensed, that hasn't stopped some UK consumers from being able to import them into the country through online pharmacies, putting themselves at significant risk of poisoning, regulators explained.
"The batches of Bak Foong pills were contaminated with mercury while the other three medicines contained lead," MHRA write in its consumer warning. "The toxic effects of lead include abdominal pain, anaemia, changes in blood pressure, reproductive disorders such as miscarriage, weakness, concentration problems, weight loss, insomnia, dizziness, kidney and brain damage. The toxic effects of mercury include irritability, tremors, memory loss, insomnia, concentration problems, kidney and brain damage."
Curiously, MHRA said it wasn't aware of any consumers having imported the product into the UK, but said the potential existed for some consumers to have purchased them on the Internet or received them from people who have recently traveled to Hong Kong.
The broader issue to regulators, though, may simply be that consumers might be tempted to purchase unlicensed products at all. "This highlights the dangers of buying unlicensed herbal medicines and the risk to people's health," explained Richard Woodfield, MHRA's Head of Herbal Policy. "These medicines contain toxic impurities and the side effects can be serious."