Researchers have employed state-of-the-art analytical tools and elegant computational methods in a truly multidisciplinary project to prove that Rasasindura, the mercury-containing Ayurvedic drug, is not toxic. Mercury is one of the top ten chemicals of major public health concern. (WHO Worksheet No 363, Sept 2013). Metallic mercury is highly mobile, soluble in water depending on its chemical form and oxidises relatively easily. Bacteria convert environmental mercury in to methyl mercury. Mercury interacts with human body and turns it into methyl mercury. Methyl mercury is more toxic. As per conventional wisdom, Rasasindura will be toxic. Ayurvedic physicians claim that they have been using this drug for ages without any harm. The study carried out in Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology tries to solve the riddle.“...Our work not only helps to understand the non-toxicity of Rasasindura but also establishes the Ayurvedic synthesis method for a well controlled end-product,” Dr. Debdutta Lahiri and her colleagues wrote in the latest issue of Journal of Synchrotron Radiation.
In this study, researchers used virgin samples of Rasasindura prepared as per Ayurvedic protocols. “Bhasmikaran” (making into powder), is simple in theory; it involves repeated, controlled and prolonged heating of metals with suitable ingredients to make metal powders and to remove residual metals and toxic organic molecules. The results obtained by the scientists apply only to the sample they used and not to any commercially available sample of Rasasindura. Regrettably, Ayurvedic formulations do not have any applicable standards.
Scientists used five analytical tools and procedures with Rasasindura and nanoparticles of lab-based red á-HgS to prove that the structure of Rasasindura is indeed the very stable, á-HgS. Surface organic groups or organic groups were absent in both .The drug has thus the following attributes: because of the special affinity of Hg to Sulphur, Hg-S bonds are very strong. Other workers have shown that accumulation of á-HgS in the human body is very low. Absorption of á-HgS by the gastro-intestinal tract is only 0.2 per cent; the fraction reaching the kidney is much lower at only 0.02 per cent. HgS is 10,000 times less toxic than methyl mercury.
The researchers showed that complete oxidation occurred in Rasasindura and free mercury or organic mercury was absent in it. They used synchrotron-based X-ray Absorption Fine Structure (XAFS) method to prove 100 per cent HgS formation in Rasasindura.
They found that that Rasasindura contains nanocrystals of about 20 nm size. Particle distribution is better controlled in Rasasindura than in á-HgS, made in laboratories. The paper proves that toxicity cannot be decided by elemental analysis alone.
In December 2004, Dr Robert B. Saper from the Boston University School of Medicine and his colleagues stated that 20 per cent of the Ayurvedic medicines they purchased from Boston contained high levels of lead, mercury and arsenic (Journal of American Medical Association). We do not know whether companies prepared any of these drugs as per Ayurvedic protocols. Saper's paper led to the banning of such drugs in many countries.
Since then a few papers showed that some of the drugs are not toxic.
Let me reiterate that the present study does not endorse any sample of Rasasindura available in the market.
The author is former Secretary, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org