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Tongkat Ali and heavy metals

By Serge Kreutz, 2021

The possible contamination of Tongkat Ali with heavy metals is a matter of concern for health-conscious consumers who aim for optimal sex as well as a maximum lifespan. To assure that Tongkatali.org's products meet the highest safety-standards, Tongkatali.org (Sumatra Pasak Bumi) has commissioned, for the past 25 years, numerous heavy metals tests at independent scientific labs and university labs.

This is in contrast to what is published by illegitimate sellers. Their certificates are fake, either doctored on the basis of certificates they found on the internet, or entirely written by themselves, with or without a letterhead of what they claim to be their "company" (even when they operate out of a single rented room).

Telltale signs include substandard English, and the absence of a stamp, a date, and a signature of the lab head. Furthermore, genuine labs do not certify what they cannot control, or for what they cannot take responsibility.

Genuine labs will not attest extract ratios of manufacturers, or that a product is "certified" GMP, or conforms to "all" government regulations, or those of the World Health Organization, WHO.

An overload of badges and logos of organizations, intended to install confidence, should also make suspicious. Pfizer and Merck do not display any, but the websites of obscure Tongkat Ali traders are plastered with badges.

The four elements typically included in a heavy metal lab examination are: lead (Pb - Plumbum), cadmium (Cd), mercury (Hg - hydrargyrum, quicksilver), and arsenic (As).

Arsenic, of course, is neither heavy, nor a metal, but it is grouped with the other three because of its toxicity.

Heavy metals occur naturally in the environment, but often high levels are anthropogenic (caused by humans).


Lead

Like cadmium and mercury (but not arsenic), lead can accumulate in the body over many years. High lead levels in the human body can cause hypertension, heart attack, stroke, kidney disease, and reproductive problems.

Compared to cadmium, mercury, and arsenic, lead has, historically, had the most widespread detrimental effect on human health.

Lead poisoning, called saturnism, caused by lead-containing paints, likely was responsible for the deaths of Michelangelo and Vincent Vang Gogh.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), too, may have been victims. And then, because lead cookware was used by Rome's elites, and sapa, a sweet lead acetate syrup, was added to both wines and food, lead poisoning may even have caused the fall of the Roman Empire (753 BC - 476). [Source: Lead and Lead Poisoning from Antiquity to Modern Times]

In the 19th and 20th century, lead contamination happened through water pipes and industrial paints.

After World War II, most lead pollution was caused by the use of leaded gasoline. The gasoline was burned, and the lead blown into the air. The lead then landed on crops, and made it into the human food chain.

Compared to 50 years ago, lead is now better managed in North America and Western Europe. "From 1976-1980 to 2015-2016, the geometric mean blood lead level (BLL) of the US population aged 1 to 74 years dropped from 12.8 to 0.82 µg/dL [micrograms per deciliter], a decline of 93.6%." [Source: Control of Lead Sources in the United States, 1970-2017]

Still, the WHO assessed that in 2017, 5.6 percent of worldwide heart attacks and 6.2 percent of worldwide strokes were caused by lead pollution. According to the WHO, lead poisoning in 2017 accounted for 1.06 million death and 24.4 million years of healthy life lost [Source: Lead poisoning and health]

Most deaths by lead bioaccumulation occur in developing countries or countries that developed at breakneck speed, such as China [Source: Lead Poisoning in China: The Hidden Scourge].

Much of the lead (and cadmium) poisoning in the 21st century, especially in Third World countries, can be traced back to coal mining and coal-fired power plants.

An analysis of 100 Malaysian Tongkat Ali products concluded that many contained up to 20.72 ppm of lead [Source: Analysis of lead content in herbal preparations in Malaysia]

On the other hand, tests throughout the past 25 years have shown that the Tongkat Ali products of Tongkatali.org (Sumatra Pasak Bumi) are free of any detectable lead contamination. Inserted left and right are lab reports results from the Universitas Indonesia (the most prestigious university of the country), and the Universitas Sumatera Utara (the leading university on Sumatra Island).

A note on units of measurement: Scientific laboratories typically measure heavy metal contaminants in ppm = parts per million. Parts per million is a measurement like percent. Percent is pph = parts per hundred. Parts per million is the same as microgram per gram (one microgram is one millionth gram) which is the same as milligram per kilogram (or liter) (one milligram is one millionth kilogram).

The US Food and Drug Administration, FDA, in September 2018, determined maximum daily limits of lead as 12.5 micrograms for adults and 3 micrograms for children. [Source: FDA reduces maximum daily limit for lead in children’s food by half].

The US does not specify maximum daily limits of lead and other heavy metals in food supplements. But do the math: 20 ppm is the same as 20 micrograms per gram. This means that 1 gram of the worst Malaysian Tongkat Ali extract would already by equivalent to almost double the lead contamination set as daily maximum limit for adults by the FDA.

Compared with Tongkatali.org's Indonesian Tongkat Ali products from North Sumatra, Malaysian Tongkat Ali can come with up to 2000 times more heavy metal load. Consumers may not, but Tongkat Ali traders typically are aware of these metrics. For this reason, on platforms like Amazon, almost all Tongkat Ali is sold as "Indonesian" even when it comes from Malaysia, or even worse, from China. Thus, buyers are advised to check or ask for photographic PROOF that a supplier indeed sources Tongkat Ali from Indonesia.

Why is Malaysian Tongkat Ali so contaminated with heavy metals?

Malaysian Tongkat Ali always comes from Sarawak, the Malaysian part of Borneo.

While many people may associate Borneo with images of Orang Utangs in vast rain forests, Borneo is the East Asian Persian Gulf - a shallow geological structure rich in easily accessible fossil fuels.

Both Indonesia and Malaysia dig out the huge coal reserves of Borneo, all accessible by open-pit mining. But on Borneo, only Sarawak has coal-fired power stations, not just one but three (Mukah Power Station, PPLS Power Generation Plant, Sejingkat Power Corporation Plant). Coal is found in Malaysia almost exclusively in Sarawak. [Source: Sarawak holds nearly all of nation’s coal reserves]

Coal only burns to some 80 to 90 percent. The residues (fly ash and bottom ash), released into the air or deposited in makeshift ponds) contain a nasty mix of poisonous elements, including lead, cadmium, mercury, arsenic, and others. As long as the coal deposits are left alone, these poisonous substances are sealed away in the ground, along with huge amounts of carbon dioxide, CO2. This is considered a necessity to make planet earth reasonably habitable for humans. As long as coal deposits are not touched, their environments are healthy. That changes with coal mining and coal-fired power plants. The toxic elements are inevitably released into the air and into underground water, and then make it into the human food chain.

But Tongkatali.org's Tongkat Ali comes from the North of Sumatra Island, thousands of kilometers to the west (see map above). Much electricity in North Sumatra is generated in the form of hydropower (7 stations: Lau Renun Hydro in Silalahi, Sipansihaporas Hydro in Sipansihaporas, Asahan I Hydro in Parmaksian, Asahan III Hydro in Pintu Pohan Meranti, Sigura-gura Hydro in Simorea, Tangga Hydro in Tangga, and Wampu Hydro in Kota Buluh). "The total Hydro Energy Resource Capacity on Sumatra Power System is 7642.2 MW." [Source: Sustainable Energy Production In Sumatra Power System ]

Furthermore, the roots of Tongkat Ali trees used by Tongkatali.org (Sumatra Pasak Bumi) to make 1:200 extract are around 30 years old... an almost pre-industrial era in the mountain ranges of Sumatra. Mountain ranges on Sumatra are still so far from human civilization that what Tongkatali.org's tribal collectors fear most are ... wild tigers. See the following footage on attacks by Sumatran tigers on humans.


Cadmium

Cadmium poisoning is much rarer than lead poisoning, and casualties are counted in the thousands, not by the million. A recent estimate puts the yearly disease load of the most common adverse long-term effect, Chronic Kidney Disease, caused by cadmium , at 2064 global deaths and 70,513 Disability-Adjusted Life Years - DALYs [Source: Global burden of late-stage chronic kidney disease resulting from dietary exposure to cadmium, 2015].

Acute cadmium poisoning causes respiratory disease, long-term exposure damages the kidneys, and heavy long-term bioaccumulation softens bones (osteomalacia).

Risk factors include working with old paints (including removal), and being employed by, or living nearby, a cadmium factory or a zinc mine. The worst case of cadmium poisoning happened between 1910 and the 1950s in the Toyama Prefecture, Japan, where the Kamioka zinc mine released cadmium-contaminated waste water into the Jinzu River (Jinzu-gawa).

The Jinzu served as source of drinking water for downstream populations, and was used for the irrigation of rice fields. Fish from the river also was a food staple.

After many years, ever more residents suffered from cadmium poisoning. The disease was named itai-itai, meaning ouch ouch, for its extraordinary painfulness.

Your risk of acute cadmium poisoning from health supplements is minimal, unless you purchase something that comes out of a place in China near a cadmium factory, or along a river into which cadmium waste has been released. In 2012, China dumped thousands of ton of aluminum chloride into the Jianglong River in Guangxi Province in an attempt to neutralize a cadmium spill.

On the other hand, just as with lead, many people around the world are affected by silent detrimental health effects from cadmium that stem from coal-fired powerplants. You can stand on climate change where you fancy, but there is no denying that coal is dirty energy. From the US Environmental Protection Agency: "Coal ash contains contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic. Without proper management, these contaminants can pollute waterways, ground water, drinking water, and the air." [Source: Coal Ash Basics]

Coal ash contains not just cadmium, lead, mercury, and arsenic but also beryllium, boron, chromium, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, strontium, thallium, uranium, and vanadium.

All these metals are naturally found in the earth's crust, in rock and soil, but in much lower concentrations than in coal ash, especially fly ash, which makes up a much largest volume of coal ash. Obviously, the concentrations in rock and soil vary from place to place, and so do the concentrations in coal, depending on its origin. But here are some rules of thumb for fly ash and natural, not contaminated soil in the US: Arsenic, fly ash up to 260 mg/kg, soil up to 12 mg/kg, Lead fly ash up to 230 mg/kg, soil up to 30 mg/kg, Cadmium, fly ash up to 3.7 mg/kg, soil up to 0.5 mg/kg, Mercury, fly ash up to 0.51 mg/kg, soil up to 0.19 mg/kg [Source: Coal Ash: Characteristics, Management and Environmental Issues]

As if the above wouldn't be enough, coal ash also harbors some elements with radioactive isotopes (forms of elements with different numbers of neutrons in their nuclei): Uranium, fly ash up to 19 mg/kg, soil up to 3.9 mg/kg Thallium, fly ash up to 45 mg/kg, soil up to 0.70 mg/kg.

As the US Environmental Protection Agency pointed out: "Without proper management, these contaminants can pollute waterways, groundwater, drinking water, and the air." But mind you: In China and the Third World, cost efficiency rules coal ash disposal, not environmental protection.


Mercury

The most common source of mercury pollution of the environment is small-scale gold mining, followed by coal-fired power plants [Source: Gold rush, mercury legacy: Small-scale mining for gold has produced long-lasting toxic pollution, from 1860s California to modern Peru]

In fairness to all the traders of fake Tongkat Ali, the Western consumer's potential mercury exposure through herbal formulations is minimal overall.

But nevertheless, the danger of mercury poisoning, acute and chronic, lurks much closer to home than Peru, or Cameroon.

Practically anybody can mercury-poison himself or herself by eating too much of the wrong fish (shark fins, for example). This is from the United States Environmental Protection Agency: "Most human exposure to mercury is from eating fish and shellfish contaminated with methylmercury, both in the United States and worldwide." [Source: How does mercury threaten our health?]

But how does all that methylmercury get into fish in the first place? It's still industrial pollution that is to blame. Inorganic, elemental mercury is released by gold mining, coal-fired power plants, and many other industrial operations and washed into rivers, or falls as rain contaminated by air pollution into oceans. Bacteria in bodies of water of any size convert inorganic, elemental mercury into methylmercury which is then taken up by algae and phytoplankton.

Small fish eat algae and phytoplankton, and larger fish eat the small fish, and sharks and tuna eat the bigger fish. The methylmercury never leaves the food chain and bioaccumulates. Thus, fish that eat other fish that eat fish inevitably contain the highest proportion of methylmercury.

While most human exposure to mercury can easily be avoided by just not eating any fish or shellfish, politicians around the world who need voters, or, in authoritarian regimes, at least non-antagonized subjects, cannot be expected to propagate a message that, because of methylmercury, aquatic life is not fit for human consumption. For both nutrition and an income, the lives of just too many people depend on fish and fishing.


Arsenic

To most people, arsenic is known as a poison from crime fiction, not scientific journals. Agatha Christie (best-selling novelist ever, at 2 billion copies) featured arsenic in the murders in 14 titles.

Cary Grant (1904 - 1986) played in the 1944 Hollywood crime comedy Arsenic and Old Lace. Arsenic has been a staple in the willful poisoning of royalty and no-longer-wanted husbands since even before the Roman Empire (753 BC - 476). Inorganic arsenic was preferred for being tasteless, soluble in water and wine, and killing in dosages of around 0.6 mg/kg body weight, just 48 mg = 0.048 grams for an 80 kg man (Reference: Arsenic Toxicity).

Inorganic (carbon-free) arsenic used to be easily available as the rat poison arsenic trioxide. It is deadly only after a few hours to four days, thus obscuring the cause of death. For organic arsenic compounds, deadly dosages in rodents are around 100 mg/kg body weight (Reference: Health Effects).

Thus, inorganic arsenic is about 200 times more deadly than organic arsenic. For humans, exposure to organic arsenic compounds happen through the consumption of seafood, but typical exposure levels are around 30 times below a lethal dosage. Contrary to what is the case for lead, cadmium, and mercury, arsenic does not accumulate in the body but is easily excreted. Immediate exposure to high quantities, or repeated chronic exposure to lower, non-lethal quantities, is responsible for the detrimental effects on people's health.

Apart from cases of murder, arsenic poisoning often does not have anthropogenic (man-made) causes. The element occurs in the earth's crust, bound in rock, and is washed into water. Geological features determine risk, Bangladesh being the most exposed country. Deep-well water in the Northeast US is also often contaminated.

Long-time ingestion of too much inorganic arsenic in drinking water is responsible for a number of cancers (skin, kidney, liver, lung) years or decades later. "Safe" levels in drinking water are below 10 ppb (parts per billion), but the less, the better, ideally zero, except for those with a kind of blood cancer (acute promyelocytic leukemia) that is treated with arsenic trioxide as an FDA-approved drug, Trisenox.

Arsenic in health supplements is not something to worry about. After contaminated drinking water, the second most common hazard is rice. Rice is grown in flooded fields (paddies). To ensure flooding, paddies are typically irrigated, sometimes with contaminated groundwater. Modern rice varieties also need a lot of fertilizer for optimal yields. Organic fertilizers are very low in arsenic, but cheap chemical fertilizers can have dangerous levels of arsenic. Here a case study: Phosphate fertilizer main source of arsenic in kidney disease in Sri Lanka.

The topic arsenic-contaminated rice made it into the world's foremost scientific journal, Nature (Contamination: The toxic side of rice), but don't expect Asian environmentalists to jump on it anytime soon.

For hundreds of millions of people, from Indonesia to Pakistan, the only alternative to arsenic-contaminated rice, accompanied by mercury-loaded fish, would be even less healthy: it's called starvation.

Meanwhile, in the affluent Northwest of the globe, governments have issued warnings against the extensive consumption of rice. Just like for fish: limit to a few servings per week.


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