Bite Sized Science: Plants are harmless, right?

By Sonia Watson

Of all fallacies none get my attention more than the naturalistic fallacy, the claim that anything “natural” is good and “unnatural” is bad. You can eat “natural” food and treat yourself with “natural” medicines, because of course the human body just can’t deal with ikky man-made products…honestly, have these people never been pushed maliciously by their younger cousin into a bush of nettles? Nature can be a stingy, itchy bitch. But she can be a lot crueller. Deadly even.

A new study published in PNAS adds to the decade of evidence that use of extracts from Aristolochia plants in herbal medicine can have fatal consequences. Aristolochic acid (AA), a compound produced by the plants, was first red flagged in 2001 after being linked to kidney damage and urinary tract cancers in Belgian women prescribed a weight-loss treatment containing the compound. It was subsequently found that AA causes tumours that have specific gene mutations. The new study into the effects of AA was conducted in Taiwan where the use of Aristolochia herbal remedies for, among other things, kidney stones, snake bites and to ease childbirth (the plants are also known as birthworts) is widespread and the incidence of upper urinary tract carcinoma (UUC) is the highest in the world. It found that patients with UUC carried this gene mutation specific to AA induced tumours, while those in their control group (patients with renal cell cancer) did not.

Although use of Aristolochia is now banned in Europe it is still widely available in Taiwan and interestingly its use is still legal in the US.

“Natural” may sound like a nice, fuzzy marketing word in today’s world but it is certainly not a synonym for “good”.

Link to study: []

Chen et al., Aristolochic acid-associated urothelial cancer in Taiwan PNAS 2012 ; published ahead of print April 9, 2012, doi:10.1073/pnas.1119920109

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0 Responses to Bite Sized Science: Plants are harmless, right?

  1. Lee Christie says:

    Your not too different than me then, the naturalistic fallacy angers me more than any other. It’s what leads people to drink raw milk, oppose feeding the 3rd world with GM crops, and intentionally infect their own kids with chicken pox.

    I honesty can’t think of another logical fallacy that personally riles me us as much this! It reduces otherwise smart people to complete idiots!

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