Authorities yesterday detained three key suspects in a case involving Taichung-based traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) businesses, after seizing materials from three companies on Thursday as part of an investigation into mercury and lead poisoning allegedly due to medicinal powder that contained cinnabar.
The investigation in the past week focused on Sheng Tang Chinese Medicine Clinic (盛唐中醫) owner Lu Shih-ming (呂世明), Jiu Fu Chinese Medicine Clinic (九福中醫) practitioner Hung Chang-hung (洪彰宏) and Shin Long Co (欣隆藥業) owner Ou Kuo-liang (歐國樑).
The Taichung District Court ruled to have the trio detained, citing the possibility of destruction of evidence and collusion on testimony, as they faced pending charges of document forgery, fraud and for breaches of the Pharmaceutical Affairs Act (藥事法).
Taichung City Health Bureau officials said that 60 people who had received treatment at Sheng Tang have been tested for mineral poisoning, with 16 allegedly to have lead poisoning. Poisoning with mercury was also suspected in some of the cases.
Officials also urged people in Taichung and central Taiwan who had visited one of the three clinics and have been prescribed medication to be tested for poisoning.
The case was made public on Friday last week when family members of Taichung City Councilor Chang Yen-tung (張彥彤) said they were suffering from lead poisoning. Chang said he became critically ill after being treated by the clinic and was later diagnosed with multiple organ failure, while his sister and parents also suffered lead poisoning.
Prosecutors argued that Lu had contravened the law by prescribing ingredients prohibited by health authorities.
Bright red cinnabar has historically been used as pigment, and is banned in Taiwan, as well as in most other countries, as it consists of mercury sulphite, which can damage the brain, nervous system and major organs.
Investigators have tested the powder seized from Shin Long, which supplied the other two clinics, and found excessive levels of mercury, lead and other heavy metals.
Prosecutors said Lu and Hung had evaded health authorities by prescribing a formula containing the powder without indicating it on official receipts, and patients had paid for the treatment without involving the National Health Insurance.
Investigators said that Hung produced what he called “Five Treasure Powder,” with cinnabar as a main ingredient. He allegedly sold it as a cure for various ailments to patients, who are now suffering from serious health problems, Taichung health officials said.
Health authorities issued orders for Sheng Tang to close for two months and fined Lu NT$500,000. Authorities ordered Jiu Fu to close for one month and fined the clinic NT$300,000.
Lu was also fined NT$100,000 for failing to record the prescriptions of powders containing cinnabar.
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