Why herbal medicines need to be treated as drugs

July 28, 2010

There is a tendency among some people to assume that herbal medicines are safe, since they’re “natural”. However, those that work (many are found not to work when they’re actually studied properly) act because a chemical in the herbal medicine has an effect on the body, just like any pharmaceutical drug. Since many pharmaceutical drugs were derived from herbal medicines, you would think this would be evident, but that doesn’t seem to stop people from assuming they’re safe.

Unlike pharmaceutical drugs, natural products are often available without consulting a medical doctor. They also are not subject to the same level of regulation and control; most not only haven’t been properly tested to see if they work, but also haven’t undergone rigorous safety studies. Furthermore, the purity and potency of these products generally aren’t regulated [1]; as a result the dose of the active chemical is often unknown (and in some cases it isn’t always present), and contamination of herbal products or misidentification of plants have been reported [2]. The natural products industry has aggressively resisted regulation in Canada and many other countries, however.

I’m not suggesting all herbal products are dangerous; many have been used for a long time without obvious adverse effects (though chronic effects can’t be ruled out without proper testing). However, one concern that probably doesn’t get as much attention as it should is the potential for drug interactions, some of which can be lethal. This risk is compounded by these products being available without consulting a doctor – often a doctor doesn’t know which herbal products a person is taking.

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Human health effects of oil spills and implications for the BP spill

July 17, 2010

A lot of the media (and scientific) attention to oil spills in the ocean focuses on the effects on marine ecosystems. The ecological effects, particularly in the short term, are undeniable – the pictures of oil-soaked birds are an obvious example. However, less attention is given to the potential effects on human health – both to those living in communities near the spill, and those involved in the spill clean up. A very timely review by Francisco Aguilera and colleagues, published shortly before the recent BP spill, looked at data from other recent spills; some of the conclusions from this review can be extrapolated to look at the human health implications of the BP spill.

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Insect Repellents

July 6, 2010

While on the whole I think most people probably like summer, it is the time of year when those pesky insects, and in particular mosquitoes, come out to bother us. Locally, it is expected to be a particularly bad year for mosquitoes due to ideal breeding conditions. In addition to being a general annoyance and leaving itchy mosquito bites, mosquitoes and other insects can transmit diseases such as West Nile Virus (or, if you happen to be in a more tropical location, malaria).

To keep mosquitoes and other insects away, we commonly use insect repellents. There are other approaches, ranging from staying indoors (but who wants to do that in the summer) to wearing protective clothing (again not ideal) to using various candles, torches, electrical devices, etc. that hopefully keep them away, but if you’re not going to be staying in one spot I suspect most people would choose an insect repellent. So how do you decide which of the many products available is the best?

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