- The Union cabinet of India approves the ratification of Minamata Convention on mercury to ban its usage. Sadhguru (Isha foundation) endorses mercury use in Ayurveda and Siddha medicines.
- Sadhguru indulges in pseudoscience on mercury where he claims he can convert it to solid from liquid by ‘simply holding it in his hand’.
- Basic chemistry of mercury: Pure Hg is liquid while compounds such as HgS is a naturally occurring solid, both neurotoxic.
- Globally, mercury pollution occurs through mining and fossil fuel combustion, while in India, ingestion of traditional medicines containing mercury is widespread.
- Siddha and Ayurveda drugs contains toxic mercury and other heavy metals higher in quantity than the maximum permissible limit (Saper, 2008).
- Incidents with mercury toxicity reported post-consumption of Ayurveda and Siddha drugs that led to severe neurological damage and paralysis in adults, effects worse in children.
- From the perspective of modern scientific research, it is evident that mercury is dangerously toxic in all forms including its usage in traditional medicine.
On the 8th of February 2018, Yogi Sadhguru from the Isha foundation tweeted that:
This statement was made following 7th of February 2018, when the Union Cabinet, India agreed to approve the enactment of the ban on mercury as part of the Minamata Convention on Mercury which is “a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury”.
India ratifies #MinamataConventiononMercury. Union Cabinet chaired by #PM #Modiji approved the proposal. It seeks to protect human health & environment from ill effects of Mercury. However, the Convention excludes use of Mercury in #Ayurvedic, #Siddha & #Unani medicines. pic.twitter.com/1ilj7REDN3
— Dr. Harsh Vardhan (@drharshvardhan) February 7, 2018
This Convention draws attention to widespread global mercury pollution due to human activities, such as mining and fossil fuel combustion, that releases this naturally occurring but toxic heavy metal from the earth’s crust.
Although, mercury has broader electrical applications such as use in batteries and fluorescent lights, as well as, in meteorological equipment like barometers and thermometers.
In India, it is also used in making traditional Indian medicines such as Ayurveda and Siddha. Furthermore, a recent study reported high mercury and arsenic content also present in traditional Chinese medicines (Furuta and Sato, 2016).
Sadhguru’s pseudoscience on mercury:
In an article, Sadhguru claims that, he can solidify and liquefy mercury by simply holding it in his hand and ‘energise’ it at room temperature. According to the Sadhguru, the benefits of such solidified mercury are related to people’s health, mental state and economics while referring to it as ‘subjective science’.
“Energising” mercury or any other material by “holding it” through a process called “consecration through divine reverberation”, mercury can be made “eternal”
“When we energize a substance, we want the densest possible material that we can find. Mercury is one of the densest possible substances and it is in liquid form – it is the only liquid metal. Once you energize this, it will remain the same way for ten, fifteen thousand years. If the right kind of situation is maintained, it may remain that way for a hundred thousand years”
The Sadhguru went on to further explain that:
“It is because of this that most of the (shiva) lingas are mercury-based. The mercury lingas in the Theerthakunds are solidified mercury – 99.2% pure mercury – that 0.8% impurity is because laboratories are not capable of removing it. According to modern chemistry, you cannot solidify mercury at room temperature; you can solidify mercury only if you take it to -38 degrees Centigrade. But I will take it in my hand and solidify and liquefy it at room temperature. This is Indian alchemy and this is a way to energize any space. We have seen how for people who have taken solidified mercury forms into their homes, their health situation, their mental situations, even their economic situations, have changed phenomenally.”
“This whole science of solidifying and energizing mercury is called Rasa Vaidya. It is a subjective science, because if you have to change one thing into something else, you need some kind of addition, subtraction, change in temperature – you have to do something, otherwise it cannot happen. But now at room temperature, mercury is solidified without any addition. That cannot be physical, objective science. It has to be subjective science.”
Understanding of basic principles of chemistry with Sadhguru’s claim
Even a basic school grade science textbook states that, under normal temperature and pressure conditions (NTP), i.e. 20°C (293.15 K, 68 °F) and an absolute pressure of 1 atm (14.696 psi, 101.325 kPa), pure mercury is indeed liquid.
Pure mercury, even with its impurities, cannot exist as a solid state at NTP. The only way mercury can exist in a solid state is when combined with other elements as a chemical compound. This other element (e.g. sulphur) can exist as the other ion in the compound (HgS), not as an impurity.
Mercury and its compounds
With the two oxidative states, mercury can bind with other elements such as oxygen and sulphur to become a solid at room temperature and pressure (NTP). Interestingly, the most common source of solidified mercury in nature is a rock called cinnabar which is a compound with mercury and sulphur- HgS.
Structurally, a rocky crystalline compound, mercury (II) sulphide is dimorphic, with its optically active α form (red) and black β form. It can be mined in most geographical locations that extracts minerals, and has been used for thousands of years to extract mercury. It is through this kind of mining that mercury is spreading to become a global pollutant in the ecosystem.
Sadhguru’s claims on mercury in Siddha and Ayurveda
In the same article of Sadhguru highlighting the importance of mercury in Ayurveda and Siddha, he claimed that it is imperative for Siddha to contain mercury. Also, he claimed that severe illnesses are cured by placing ‘solidified’ mercury on the body.
“Indian systems of medicine like Ayurveda and Siddha Vaidya use mercury on a daily basis. Siddha Vaidya cannot operate without mercury. Mercury is the most essential ingredient in Siddha Vaidya and also in some Ayurvedic products. This practice has been on for thousands of years. Consumption of mercury is very much a part of yogic practice. We know what it does to the system. In India, you will see people wearing mercury balls around their neck. There are any number of people who have come out of very serious immunological diseases just by having a piece of solidified mercury on their body.”
Siddha medicine: one of the forms of ancient Indian traditional medicine systems, emerging from ancient region of the southern India (broadly, today’s Tamil Nadu and its surrounding geographical region).
It is the ‘S’ in the AYUSH (Ayurverda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy) of traditional Indian medicines, promoted heavily as a mainstream medicine system by the current government of India and also has its own Ministry of AYUSH, independent of the Ministry of Health and Welfare.
Mercury in Ayurveda and Siddha treatments
In India, processes that includes mercury usage and addition not only exists in industrial electrical manufacturing, but also in Ayurveda, Siddha & Unani medicines.
Since, the Minamata Convention seeks to protect human health & environment from adverse effects of Mercury, it excludes the use of Mercury in Ayurvedic, Siddha & Unani medicines. This decision was endorsed by the Union environment minister Dr. Harsh Vardhan along with the decision of the Cabinet.
If the traditional Indian medical practice of Siddha, is essentially reliant on the use of mercury, then the toxicity and dosage of these drugs in humans needs to be questioned by the scientific principles of modern research.
Research on heavy metals like mercury in traditional Indian drugs
In 2002, Broussard and his colleagues published a meta-analysis of various mercury toxicity studies to conclude that mercury ions produce toxic effects by protein precipitation, enzyme inhibition, and generalized corrosive action. The article also discussed mechanisms of various routes of exposure, i.e. air, water and food and its threshold limits as well as symptoms of acute and chronic exposure.
Evidently, naturally occurring mineral ore of mercury, such as Cinnabar, is also toxic and this toxicity was even found in the ancient Roman Empire (P. Wexler, 2014 & R. J. Myers, 1986) and confirmed with modern medicine (H.Y. Son, et al. 2010).
A research article in 2008 that documented the amount of mercury and other heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, tin in larger than the maximum allowable content was published by Dr. Robert B. Saper, MD, MPH, Department of Family Medicine, Boston University School of Medicine.
Although, these drugs contain small quantities of mercury, human body only needs small quantities to have a long lasting irreversible neurological damage.
Saper’s article quoted above that profiled several Ayurveda drugs and suggested that the ingestion levels of substances such as mercury, lead and arsenic to be well above the permissible limit in both adults and children, if those Ayurveda drugs were consumed according to the recommended dosage of the manufacturers. In the same study by Saper (2008), a figure stated that, 20% of the tested Ayurvedic drugs contained heavy metals and 9% contained mercury out of the 70 drugs tested. The list below gave the names of some drug manufacturers in India whose formulations contains high doses of heavy metals..
Toxicity of mercury and its compounds
There have been cases of poisoning with mercury globally that has led to a major worldwide ban. It is estimated that more than 75,000 newborns in the United States each year may have increased risk of learning disabilities associated with in-utero exposure to methylmercury.
There are several reports from WHO on hazardous substances that highlight the ill effects of mercury on human health.
Several incidents have been widely reported about consuming mercury based traditional medicines leading to health issues.
In 2015, a 55-year-old woman from Hamburg was found with “record” levels of the toxic heavy metals in her body after using Ayurvedic medicines prescribed to her while staying for a week at a spa hotel in Sri Lanka.
She brought the medicines back with her to Germany and continued to take them for weeks until she collapsed in July and was rushed to hospital suffering from severe neurological damage.
Tobias Meyer, chief physician of Nephrology at the Asklepios Clinic Barmbek in Hamburg, treated the woman and said that the medicine contained 566,110 times the allowed level of mercury. The woman had swallowed a total of 213g of mercury, according to an analysis by the Hamburg Central Institute for Occupational and Maritime Medicine.
In 2016 in Kerala, another young woman was given a Siddha medication for her skin problem, until her limbs were paralysed. Another medication was given for this new paralysis, essentially a side-effect of the medication misdiagnosed as rheumatism, until allegedly, 80% of her nerves had been damaged.
According to mercury study report to congress in the USA by the National Service Centre for Environmental Publications (NSCEP), it can even be directly absorbed through direct contact with bare, or in some cases (methylmercury) insufficiently protected skin.
Mercury toxicity: worse in neonates and children
Mercury, in any form, is dangerously hazardous to humans, where the quantity can be amplified through the food chain- in a process called bio-magnification by consuming food (e.g. fish and plants) and medication containing mercury. Since, the absorption of mercury is 90% via the gastrointestinal tract and produces rapid effect with higher toxicity, it is particularly dangerous in children..
In children, the effects of low dose prenatal mercury exposure can be dangerous in respect to cognition such as motor activity, attention, visuospatial changes, language and memory (see figure above)
In this article, we examined various claims by Sadhguru regarding usage of mercury in Indian traditional medicines such as Siddha. The peer reviewed scientific literature on mercury clearly establishes its toxicity when ingested or absorbed.
Moreover, there are several incidents that have been reported in relation to mercury toxicity, causing direct harm to human health, specifically in relation to the usage of traditional medications.
While all pseudoscience needs to be examined rigorously using modern scientific research methodology, this kind of hazardous pseudoscience needs to be taken more seriously by the government, especially when the endorsements of it comes from public figures such as the Sadhguru.