Most elderly Hmong have a basic knowledge of medicinal herbs and grow the more common varieties in their backyards. During the cold winter months, some plants are repotted and placed indoors. Kws tshuaj (herbal medicine experts) who sell tshuaj ntsuab (fresh herbs), tshuaj qhuav (dried roots or bark), and other organic substances (i.e., rhinoceros bones/skin/dried blood, dried bear and snake gall bladders, etc) are a common site at Hmong American festivals and weekend markets. These rare organic substances are believed to be beneficial for a variety of ailments.
A study conducted in the late 1980’s in St. Paul/Minneapolis, Minnesota identified 37 medicinal plants used by Hmong Americans (Spring, 1989). The phytochemical components of these plants were identified and found to have the potential pharma-cological activities correlated with their intended use. Ninety-two percent of the plants where found to be efficacious when western biomedical criteria were applied. These medicinal herbs were used for a variety of purposes such as: swollen or painful joints, “weak kidneys”, stomachache, diarrhea, leg weakness, difficult and painful urination.
Hmong Americans also import medications, herbs, and other organic substances used for healing from Laos, Thailand, and China, which can also be harmful. The Marathon County Health Department and the Wisconsin Division of Public health evaluated imported drugs and folk remedies used by two Hmong families (Werner, Knobeloch, Erbach, & Anderson, 2001).
A reddish-brown powder purchased in California for treatment of chicken pox, flu-like symptoms and nasal decongestion was found to consist of 36% arsenic and trace amounts of barium, cadmium, iron and lead.
The second family had 5 packets of pharmaceutical preparations manufactured in Thailand, one of which contained chloramphenicol, an antibiotic that is not commonly used today because of the potentially serious side effects (Werner, Knobeloch, Erbach, & Anderson, 2001).
Recommendations for Health Providers
We recommend that health care providers ask elders and their families about the use of herbs, organic remedies, and imported pharmaceutical agents and advise their cautious use, since these substances pose potential health hazards by themselves and in combination with prescribed medications. As specific substances are identified as toxic, then health care providers should educate the elders and their families about them.