Chinese herbal medicine, an ancient tradition that is supposed to heal, may be doing the opposite: is it also harming people's health and polluting the environment with pesticides, as a Greenpeace study released Monday suggests?
The study, "Chinese Herbs: Elixir of Health or Pesticide Cocktail?" tested 65 popular Chinese herbs from nine pharmacies in nine Chinese cities and found 48 tested positive for pesticide residues. Six of the residues (found in 26 of the samples) were from pesticides banned in China, including some the World Health Organization has classified as extremely hazardous. Alarmingly, one pesticide residue was 500 times over the European Union maximum, the study found.
That Chinese traditional herbs are tainted is known here; last year, People's Daily online posted an article that said, "Don't let poor quality herbs destroy the practice of traditional Chinese medicine!" The piece went on to describe the severity of pesticide residue and chemical pollution in traditional Chinese medicines.
China's 600 million farmers use close to two million tons of pesticides each year but the effective utilization rate is only about 30 percent, the Greenpeace study found. The rest turns into hazardous soil, water and air pollution.
Over the past few years, China has spent 21 billion renminbi on genetic engineering research and development, far outstripping the 700 million renminbi spent on ecological farming, the study said.
Health implications from long-term exposure to toxic pesticide levels may include learning difficulties, hormone disruption and reproductive abnormalities, Greenpeace said.
Sometimes drunk as teas, also brewed then dried, powdered and turned into capsule form, traditional Chinese medicine has been used for thousands of years to cure ailments ranging from the common cold to ovarian cysts.
"Chinese herbs are trusted and used as food ingredients for healing purposes by millions of people around the world," said Jing Wang, an ecological farming campaigner and project leader of the Greenpeace study. "They are an iconic part of our heritage we must preserve. Chinese herbs should heal, not harm people and must be pesticide free."
China needs to do far more to combat the use of potentially dangerous pesticides in farming and the food chain, Ms. Wang said.
"From when we first started paying attention to this issue of pesticides until now, China hasn't done much to change agricultural practices," she said. "If the government were to realize the magnitude of this problem and make it a priority, I believe they would have the ability to improve food safety and reduce the use of pesticides. But at present, we haven't seen this happen."
Greenpeace has been warning against pesticides in Chinese foods, drinks and other ingested products for years. Last year, 12 of the 18 tea products it tested were found to contain at least one banned pesticide.
In 2011, it found 35 of 50 vegetables and fruits tested, from major supermarket chains across China, contained pesticides….
Some pesticides were found in “extremely high concentration”, with residues on the san qi flower 500 times over safety limits and on the honeysuckle more than 100 times over.
The report follows an investigation by Greenpeace in April which revealed mountains of hazardous waste left from China’s huge phosphate fertiliser industry are polluting nearby communities and waters.
China, the world’s top maker of phosphate fertiliser, has seen production more than double over the past decade to 20 million tons last year, leaving 300 million tons of a byproduct called phosphogypsum that can contain harmful substances.
China’s agricultural sector has expanded rapidly in recent years, and “intense” farming methods have been blamed by state media for recent food scares, including a deadly outbreak of bird flu earlier this year.