89% of Chinese herbal medicines purchased abroad contained 3 or more pesticides

As part of our exposé on the poison that China calls “merchandise,” today we take a closer look at Chinese herbal medicine, which is often laden with deadly pesticides.

(Don’t miss our earlier coverage of the most recent Chinese pet treat scare.)

Greenpeace collected 65 samples of traditional Chinese herbal products from nine retail chains in nine different cities across China. 74% of the samples tested positive for pesticides. 

They also purchased 36 made-in-China medicinal herbs in seven major export markets in seven countries, including Virginia (Washington, DC suburbs), London, Toronto, Vancouver, Paris, Hamburg, Milan and Amsterdam. 89% of the samples contained three or more pesticides.

Among the products they tested were wolfberries, angelica, honeysuckle, Sanqi flowers and chrysanthemum.

Here are more details, it’s pretty horrifying.

A farmer from the Miao minority pours a cocktail of pesticides into a sprayer to prepare for spraying his pseudo-ginseng farm. Dehou Town, Wenshan County, Yunnan Province. Wenshan is the origin and the main production area of pseudo-ginseng and accounts for almost 98 percent of China's total yield. (© Simon Lim / Greenpeace)

A farmer from the Miao minority pours a cocktail of pesticides into a sprayer to prepare for spraying his pseudo-ginseng farm. (© Simon Lim / Greenpeace)

Chinese herbs purchased in China

  • 74% of the samples bought in China tested positive for pesticides.
  • 50% of the samples contained traces of three or more pesticides.
  • 40% of the samples contained the residue of pesticides that have been banned in China.  The World Health Organization has classified some of the pesticides as “extremely” or “highly” hazardous.
  • 32% of the samples contained 11 to 40 pesticides each.
  • Some of the poison residue was 100 to 500 times the maximum European residue limit.

Chinese herb exports to western markets

  • 89% of the made-in-China medicinal herbs bought in western countries contained three or more kinds of pesticides.
  • 72% of the samples tested exceeded the safety levels set by European authorities. (Seven samples couldn’t be tested, so the percentage could be even higher.)
  • 47% of the samples showed residues of pesticides classified as “highly or extremely hazardous” by the World Health Organization.

Radio Free Asia reports that while China has excellent environmental laws, they’re rarely enforced because of the country’s endemic culture of corruption:

Campaigners say that China has an exemplary set of environmental protection legislation, but that close ties between business and officials mean that it is rarely enforced at a local level.

Beijing University of Science and Technology economics professor Hu Xingdou said there are few incentives for Chinese farmers to stick to the law when raising lucrative crops, however.

Chinese officials are either apathetic about enforcing the rules on pesticides, or they form part of corrupt protection networks that shield their members from the law, he said.

“The punishments for this sort of thing aren’t very severe in China,” Hu said. “Also, 99.9 percent of people are being protected from them.”

“It costs a lot to stick to the law, and very little to break it. There is very little enforcement capability.”…

“Often, they will produce fake or shoddy goods, or foodstuffs and medicines that are actually poisonous, and it’s very hard to trace who was responsible,” Hu said.

And get ready for chicken processed in China coming to a store near you.

CyberDisobedience on Substack | @aravosis | Facebook | Instagram | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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49 Responses to “89% of Chinese herbal medicines purchased abroad contained 3 or more pesticides”

  1. Herbmaster says:

    Here is a source of considerable research:


  2. Houndentenor says:

    You seem to have misunderstood my question. Yes, there are obviously problems with prescription drugs and also benefits. I was asking for evidence for the efficacy of herbal remedies.

  3. Herbmaster says:

    Thanks for asking. There are more. These are a start:

    Source: Jason, et al. (Lazarou et al), Incidence of Adverse Drug Reactions in Hospitalized Patients, Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Vol. 279. April 15, 1998, pp. 1200-05. Also Bates, David W., Drugs and Adverse Drug Reactions: How Worried Should We Be? JAMA, Vol. 279. April 15, 1998, pp. 1216-17.

    One of the first JAMA article on medical errors appeared in JAMA 1994;272:1851-7. by Leape LL. Then in April 1998, JAMA 1998 Apr 15;279(15):1200-5 Seehttp://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/htbin-post/Entrez/query?db=m&form=6&Dopt=r&uid=9555760

    Related articles are at http://jama.ama-assn.org/issues/v280n20/related/jlt1125-1.html#searchmedline

    Other related articles:
    Schuster M, McGlynn E, Brook R. How good is the quality of health care in the United States? Milbank Q. 1998;76:517-563. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/htbin-post/Entrez/query?db=m&form=6&Dopt=r&uid=9879302

    World Health Report 2000. Available at: http://www.who.int/whr/2000/en/report.htm.

    Starfield B. Evaluating the State Children’s Health Insurance Program: critical considerations. Annu Rev Public Health. 2000;21:569-585.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/htbin-post/Entrez/query?db=m&form=6&Dopt=r&uid=10884965

    Leape L. Unnecessary surgery. Annu Rev Public Health. 1992;13:363-383.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/htbin-post/Entrez/query?db=m&form=6&Dopt=r&uid=1599594

    Phillips D, Christenfeld N, Glynn L. Increase in US medication-error deaths between 1983 and 1993. Lancet. 1998;351:643-644. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/htbin-post/Entrez/query?db=m&form=6&Dopt=r&uid=9500322

    Weingart SN, Wilson RM, Gibberd RW, Harrison B. Epidemiology and medical error. BMJ. 2000;320:774-777. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/htbin-post/Entrez/query?db=m&form=6&Dopt=r&uid=10720365

    Guyer B, Hoyert D, Martin J, Ventura S, MacDorman M, Strobino D. Annual summary of vital statistics 1998. Pediatrics. 1999;104:1229-1246.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/htbin-post/Entrez/query?db=m&form=6&Dopt=r&uid=10585972

    Harrold LR, Field TS, Gurwitz JH. Knowledge, patterns of care, and outcomes of care for generalists and specialists. J Gen Intern Med. 1999;14:499-511.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/htbin-post/Entrez/query?db=m&form=6&Dopt=r&uid=10491236

    Holland E, Degruy F. Drug-Induced Disorders – November 1, 1997 – American Family Physician “…more than 1 million patients are injured while in the hospital and approximately 180,000 die because of these injuries.”http://www.aafp.org/afp/971101ap/holland.html

  4. Houndentenor says:

    Those are interesting claims. Can you cite a source, preferably a peer-reviewed journal?

  5. Herbmaster says:

    This so-called reporting is nothing more than an incomplete survey. Its not even scientific. Canadian authorities have double-checked their findings. They found that none of the samples contained pesticides. There is a lot at stake here. If you track these sources you may be surprised that even so called unquestionable reliable orgs like this can be corrupted and spinning their story for big PHARMA. Who has an interest here. Just in hospitals alone there are 100K+ deaths due to prescriptions. Add that to outpatient prescriptions which are multiples higher. Compare that to deaths due to herbs, 0 deaths. What is UP! No one is reporting how those herbs are managed to neutralize that condition. No one is sharing how the herb extracts are triple checked for purity, GMP certified which meets higher scrutiny than FDA measures. No one is talking about how food has changed in our generation and now we have multiple increases in obesity, diabetes and other diseases of civilization. I could draw the picture further but I think you get the story from the outline. Don’t be fooled here. They keep re-drafting the same story and I am sure you will see a new restatement every few months for many years until some new BS that distracts Americans from the continuous assault on their health.

  6. lynchie says:

    Yeah I like the double speak. That is all we get from Congress. Tough talk on guns and they haven’t voted on shit. Tough talk on Wall Street and the banks, no one goes to jail. Only fines which are tax deductible. O’highness is superb at anthem speeches with no follow up, no action and no real content. On a daily basis we are fed a pot full of piss and empty promises and if we gag at drinking the grog we are told we are not appreciative enough of the sacrifices Congress and the “job creators” are making. In the end they don’t give a shit what we think because we have no power. At the ballot box we are given a choice of two candidates who are approved by the 1% and then without a smirk on their faces told to vote for the lesser of two evils. Next election we will have a choice of Jeb or Hillary so we can continue the family of 1% in the WH. That is “change” i don’t fucking believe in.

  7. The_Fixer says:

    Yeah. If you get any response, it will be full of canned PR Speak. It seems that the only way to get a response is to have some sort of public boycott action. And even then, they don’t always give a sensible response. If there is a response, it’s mostly words and no action.

  8. lynchie says:

    Remember the Men’s Wearhouse add “an informed consumer is our best customer”. Try writing to any company or better yet calling them and getting to speak to someone.

  9. BeccaM says:

    I honestly don’t know what ‘squaw tea’ is, and Hopi tea is definitely not ephedra. There’s a spindly tiny-flowered (yellow) plant common to this area, grows about a foot high and blooms through the summer. The tea from it reminds me a lot of rooibos, but a touch sweeter.

  10. karmanot says:

    Becca is Hopi tea and Ephedra like “squaw tea”?

  11. Houndentenor says:

    The FDA is now (and has been for years) so underfunded they can’t even inspect enough meat packing plants to keep us from getting E-coli in our food. I agree that anything sold ought to do what the seller promises it will. But they really don’t have the staff to take this on. Since most of these supplements are at best placebos, they at least aren’t hurting anyone unless they are actually sick and forgo proven and tested therapies for quackery. (see: Jobs, Steve)

  12. The_Fixer says:

    Yes, it seems that most Americans don’t keep themselves informed. Partly because the newspaper as we once knew it, as well as decent TV news, are dying institutions. Americans get their news from places like Yahoo!, Fox, and believe it or not, Facebook. No wonder they know more about Chris Brown and the Kardashians than what is really going on in the world. What’s really funny is that more people find “The Daily Show” – which John Stewart calls a comedy show – to be more credible than network and cable newscasts. That should tell us something right there.

    It’s easy to complain about Americans being ignorant, and yes, they do deserve some of the blame. But a lot of people lead very busy lives just trying to earn a living. In the 1950s and 1960s, we had one working parent, usually a he, who worked a good job, and that was sufficient to raise a family. Often he came home at 5:00 PM in time to catch the evening newscast. Those newscasts may have had their problems, but they operated under far more stringent journalistic standards than today. We had public affairs programs that had to conform to the “Equal Time” provision that was scrubbed off the face of the earth by Reagan Republicans.

    Now? Two parents are working to maintain a household. Some work 2 or 3 different jobs in order to pay the bills. This leaves them with precious little time to keep themselves informed.

    I am not a person who spends much time thinking of the “good old days” and frankly, don’t want to go back there (they weren’t so good for me). Society is supposed to advance, things are supposed to get better (and some things have). But we have gone backward in our news media. The day Ted Turner changed news into a for-profit business marked the beginning of a long, downward slide in media.

    It would be interesting to do a poll among the people that we casually know in our lives – average folks. See if they have even heard of the 3 big China stories – the tainted pet food, the sludge cooking oil, and the pesticide-laden supplements. Chances are, you’d find that they heard a little something about one of them, and it would be inaccurate info they got third-hand, through Facebook. Sad.

  13. The_Fixer says:


    My proposal would assume that the tax code is revised so that corporations pay reasonable taxes (this includes raw rates and the removal of offshore havens) . Reasonable by our measure, not theirs. It is not reasonable for GE to make a $5 billion profit and yet pay no taxes.

    The government does need that revenue in order to reduce deficit spending and pay down the debt. If a company does get a tax break for relocating manufacturing facilities to, or keeping manufacturing facilities in this country, these tax breaks would be offset. More people being employed, and the increase in home-grown vendors for those factories would bring in tax revenue.

    As I said, this is an exercise in fantastic thinking. What’s more likely to happen is the scenario that you describe.

  14. lynchie says:

    the ordinary american does not read the newspaper, in addition the news is largely made up of paid infomercials for various companies and healthcare systems. As a result they have no clue what is happening around them. That is why the tea party, birthers, palin, cruz all are able to continue to spout their brand of hatred. You are also right that companies only care about short term profits. They are worried about their bonuses not your health or even the health of their own families.

  15. Thom Allen says:

    It would be great to reward businesses with lower taxes if they have good pay, stay in the US, etc. But many businesses now get away with paying no or minimal taxes already. They’d just scoff at a tax break and continue to cheat on taxes they owe and collect government subsidies and give-backs.

  16. The_Fixer says:

    Yes, I agree. But one can also look at the root of the problem, and that may be harder to fix.

    The root of the problem is that the big money people have been getting ever greedier. Their greed depresses wages, takes away that manufacturing base in favor of offshoring, and as a result, people are forced to buy cheap and dangerous products.

    I have a fantasy: change the tax code so that businesses that do invest in the U.S. are rewarded with lower taxes. Businesses that pay their employees well are rewarded with lower taxes, and companies that do not have safety-related recalls are rewarded by having lower tax bills. If they don’t do that, close tax loopholes and tax the shit out of ’em.

    It’s a fantasy because of who really has the reins of power in the government – the big money interests. Before we can even hope to change that, we have to kill the Citizen’s United ruling and institute public campaign financing. De-fanging people like the Koch bothers is our only chance to make a government that serves the people rather than the big money interests.

    Fat chance of that happening any time soon. But a fella can dream….

  17. Naja pallida says:

    Amazing what happens when you have an entire selection of consumer goods that fall into the giant loopholes between food and medications, where they have no standards, and nobody is testing them to make sure they are what they claim to be unless there are enough reported problems for the FDA to act… and even then, it can take a decade for them to get around to doing anything serious.

  18. Naja pallida says:

    The tag “Made in China” won’t become toxic until there are affordable alternatives. Millions of people have no choice but to roll the dice and buy cheap Chinese made crap at Wal-Mart every day. Several things have to change for progress to occur: We need to re-prioritize our economy to rebuilding our manufacturing base, to produce our own affordable consumer goods. We have to discourage American companies from going to China for cheap labor and raw ingredients. We have to make the corporations that produce those products pay living wages, so people can actually afford to buy what they’re making. Above all, and probably the easiest to accomplish, we have to hold China accountable for sending us tainted products, and start restricting goods from companies that have proven themselves to be unreliable. If needs be, start using political pressure to get China to clean up their act. There’s no reason why the American people should be put at risk simply because the free market doesn’t care who lives and who dies.

  19. The_Fixer says:

    Well, this is par for the course. This week had stories of cooking oil made from sewage, and now this.

    At what point will the “Made in China” brand be radioactive? It’s already horribly tainted. It seems like every other week we hear something negative about manufacturing in China. Aside from the obvious problem that it’s outsourcing heaven, there’s horrible working conditions, extensive environmental damage, and products that can at the least, make a person very sick, at the worst, kill somebody.

    I wonder at what point do people say “Enough” and stop buying from them? Once people have had enough, regaining any confidence in their brand will take a long time.

    It’s not worth it for them to pursue short-term profits this way, and certainly not worth it for us consumers to save a buck on something that may very well kill us.

    It’s tempting to say that we all need to wake up to this and not buy anything made in China. Problem is, we don’t have any alternatives in some cases.

  20. Dls2k2 says:

    It grows like a hardy weed in the SF Bay area.

  21. Houndentenor says:

    There are other studies that show that “chinese medicine” outlets are selling things that aren’t at all what they claim to be. Pesticides are just another minor problem with this quackery.

  22. Stas says:

    this is a interesting game


  23. Stas says:

    this is a game

  24. Indigo says:

    Unregulated capitalism! Ain’t it great? Not!

  25. trinu says:

    Unfortunately the crooks have wised up and a lot of them will even put “made in the USA” on products imported from China.

  26. trinu says:

    Pesticides in crops are the least of their agricultural problems. Check out how they’ve been scooping up heavy-metal laden garbage from the landfills and using as fertilizer for their crops.

  27. nobonesl says:

    Thank Global Capitalism for another wonderful treat. Enjoy!

  28. nobonesl says:

    Rosemary is one of the easiest perennials to grow, outside in-ground, or in a pot. Looks like a small, bushy evergreen.

  29. nobonesl says:

    Agreed. I grow rosemary, thyme, bay leaf, mint and basil, along with lemons, oranges, figs and grapes, and tomatoes and greenbeans in the summers. No huge amounts, but decent yields. It’s a nice supplement to storebought stuff.
    And using some fresh herbs adds a gourmet touch to many meals.

  30. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    Cat piss may be safer.

  31. karmanot says:

    Another great herb is ‘Squaw Tea’, which I used to collect on the mesas.

  32. karmanot says:

    same here

  33. karmanot says:

    Yep, we have done so for years.

  34. Bill_Perdue says:

    It they’re not careful the Chinese may catch up to the levels of pesticides, impurities, genetically engineered foods and herbicides in foods produced in the US.

  35. pappyvet says:

    We have an herb garden that we are quite proud of and I believe that Victory gardening will be a staple in a lot of people’s future. And should be !

  36. Indigo says:

    Sounds great!

  37. BeccaM says:

    I’m pretty sure the answer is ‘yes.’ One great thing about growing herbs here is the environmental stress ensures they’re always powerful and pungent. You can smell a teaspoon of fresh-ground dill from across the room.

  38. Daddy Bear says:

    Will Rosemary grow there? I just love the smell of Rosemary — plus, rubbing a little on my forehead helps my migraines…

  39. BeccaM says:

    We’ve only just gotten started at our new place, only having been here less than a year on this side of the mountain. A lot of what we gather grows wild, such as the osha and valerian, but we’ve also made a concerted effort to grow herbal self-seeders such as dill and chamomile. The basil and parsley turned out pretty well, too.

    It’s also dead easy and rather fun to make tinctures, too, although it kind of requires one to have access to pure grain alcohol.

  40. perljammer says:

    If you think the herbal contamination is bad, check out a little slice of heaven called Gutter Oil. But don’t do it on a full stomach, please.

  41. DavidinPS says:

    It doesn’t matter where they are manufactured. Supplements in this country are terribly regulated, period–thanks, Orrin Hatch. The amount of adulteration found in herbal remedies, vitamins and other so called healthy products is shocking. Put aside that makers of supplements, herbal remedies and such can make almost any claim about their product and what it does without having to provide ANY evidence whatsoever.

  42. bej says:

    I’m reading Silent Spring right now (published in 1962) and it’s amazing what they knew back then about pesticides. It’s a real eye-opener how much these toxic cheimicals get concentrated and persist in the cells of plants and animals, even when the chemicals are initially sprayed at low concentrations.
    One startling example from Silent Spring: Eskimos in Alaska who lived in pristine, uncontaminated areas had pesticides (DDT, or something similar) in their fat tissue. How did it get there? From the few meals they ate from a brief visit to the hospital in Anchorage was the author’s best guess. People were using extremely toxic chimicals so extensively that anywhere you tested, you could find them.

  43. Indigo says:

    I grow my own mint and some herbs for cooking, that’s about it.

  44. BeccaM says:

    That’s why we grow and harvest our own herbal teas and tinctures. Chamomile, valerian, osha, horehound, Hopi tea…

  45. bkmn says:

    Strongly agree. Far too many companies out there to make a buck. Doesn’t matter if what they are peddling is the real deal or not, adulterated with pesticides/herbicide/fungicides or not.

    I urge everyone I know to avoid OTC supplements.

    The fact that several of the drug companies are moving into the supplement market does not make me feel any better about those products.

  46. Naja pallida says:

    The herbal supplement market in the US is terribly regulated to begin with. Quality of products varies widely from brand to brand, and even batch to batch. China’s lack of interest in selling a quality product is just icing on the cake.

  47. BeccaM says:

    Meanwhile, Dell computers has had to explain to its customers that the notebook computers people have been buying that smell like cat urine haven’t actually been contaminated by anything biological, but was the result of a ‘faulty’ manufacturing process.

    Which, of course, takes place in China.

    As if “oh gee, it’s not cat piss but just a noxious smelling chemical” is any more reassuring.


    Who would’ve ever thought they’d do unregulated, laissez-faire capitalism even better than America?

  48. Indigo says:

    That helps explain the recent flowering of herbal medicines on the market that are not made in China.

  49. heimaey says:

    Not a surprise. Good to know for sure though.

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