The term ‘natural’ does not necessarily mean ’safe’ — a fact demonstrated by an artcle published in today’s Edmonton Journal about a death connected to the use of a herbal remedy.
Nearly three in four Canadians have used natural health products, according to a 2005 Health Canada survey, and nearly half say if they see a natural health product for sale, they feel sure it’s safe. While many products are legitimate and safe, better regulation of the natural health product industry (particularly products made outside of Canada) will help ensure the safety of Canadians.
Alberta trucker’s death raises questions about natural remedies
Edmonton Journal – July 31, 2008
Hans Grebenstein had worked shifts in a chemical plant for more than a decade when he started to have trouble getting a good night’s sleep.
A Type 2 diabetic, he was leery of using potentially addictive prescription drugs to help him rest, so when a colleague recommended a Chinese herbal remedy called Sleep Well, he tried it.
“The guy who put us onto it swore by it,” Grebenstein said.
Word got around. Half a dozen men working in the chemical plant were using it.” He looked up all the ingredients, and even got approval from his doctor.
Months later, Grebenstein learned the innocuous herbal medicine contained a powerful prescription sedative called estazolam, one of a class of controlled drugs that can cause drowsiness and dizziness – what he had called his “herbal hangovers.”
Health Canada warned Canadians not to use Sleep Well and two other herbal remedies because of the dangerous side effects.
Four months later, 55-year-old Michael Berggren died in a single-vehicle rollover in northern Alberta.
A toxicologist found estazolam in his blood, too, and the tranquilizer was again traced to a Chinese herbal remedy.
Alberta Justice launched a fatality inquiry to find out if the drug played a role in his death; the inquiry finished this week and a judge will issue a report in the coming months.
Nearly three in four Canadians have used natural health products, says a 2005 Health Canada survey, and nearly half say if they see a natural health product for sale, they feel sure it’s safe.
But for the third day in a row, Health Canada was unable to explain Thursday how the tainted drugs got into Canadian medicine cabinets, or what the government is doing to stop it from happening in future.
A spokesman said the department is still looking for answers.
University of Western Ontario pharmacologist Ed Lui studies traditional Chinese medicine and says in most cases, the drugs are the product of the natural fusion between Western and Eastern medicines in China.
“Many times they do declare it,” he said. “But there are others who intentionally adulterate their product to enhance potency or effectiveness of herbal remedies. . . . Obviously, from a public health perspective, this is something people should be concerned about.”
Lionel Pasen, a consultant for the natural products industry, says change is coming, but Canadians should be cautious.
“Unfortunately, this is a situation Health Canada has not been able to deal with up until now,” he said.
“Because of the tainted products that have been coming in from China – dog food, toothpaste, toys, and herbal products like this – the government brought in Bill C-51. The purpose is to give Health Canada some teeth.” The bill currently being debated before second reading.
Pasen said until now, Health Canada could fine a company $5,000 for breaking the rules. If Bill C-51 is passed, the fine will rise to up to $5 million. Inspectors will be able to seize products at the border and stop them from entering the market. Until the law is changed, however, Pasen says Canadians can stay safe by buying local.
“Stick to products that are made in North America, and you’re not going to have this problem,” he said “I’m not suggesting that all Chinese products are bad, but the chances are increased.”
Grebenstein is still disillusioned.
“It claimed to be all natural. . . . This being herbal, they claimed no addictions or anything like that,” he said.
“I feel Health Canada should be more stringent in looking at what is actually in these things, before allowing them to be distributed as herbal medicines.”