Caution Advised About Lead in Indian Spices and Powders

Caution Advised About Lead in Indian Spices and Powders

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After paints, toys, and pet food, now Indian spices and ceremonial powders have entered the long list of sources where lead has been found. The recently published study in the journal Pediatrics identified Indian spices and cultural powders as a more recent source of lead poisoning. While the study is reported to have been undertaken after several reports of lead poisoning in Indian children in Boston were found, experts and healthcare providers have also seen cases of lead poisoning due to exposure to Indian spices and powders in California.

Julie Kurko, health services manager at Alameda County Lead Poisoning Prevention Program said, “Though it is not a widespread problem we have seen such cases of lead poisoning every few years and I think mostly the problem has been with turmeric.”

“CDPH (California Department of Public Health) has identified cases of lead poisoning associated with lead contaminated spices including chili powder and turmeric,” said Dr. Linda Crebbin, chief of CDPH’s Care Management Section, Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch. “California cases of lead poisoning from turmeric have occurred in adults, children and a pregnant woman.” The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has set the maximum exposure limit for children at 6 micrograms per day (mcg/day) for children and 75 mcg/day for adults.

However, Crebbin also pointed out that turmeric associated with all of the California cases was obtained directly from India, Nepal and Bangladesh rather than being sold in local stores. Since they were in unmarked bags it was not possible to identify a manufacturer or a distributor.

Most experts noted that lead can penetrate into spices if they are grown in lead-contaminated soil or can be inadvertently added during the manufacturing or drying process or may be intentionally added to add color or weight to the product. Some health care providers also observed that many of these products are brought into the United States when people go back to their home countries or when their families come to visit them here.

Lead poisoning in children and adults may be completely asymptomatic, and most people with lead poisoning do not look or act sick. However, even lead levels which do not cause noticeable symptoms can cause problems in infants and children such as decreased intelligence quotient (IQ), learning difficulties and behavior problems. It can also cause problems such as kidney disease and high blood pressure.

At higher blood lead levels, lead poisoning may cause symptoms such as abdominal pain, nausea, tiredness, headaches, irritability, and at very high levels it can cause seizures, coma, and even death.

The only way to determine if someone has lead poisoning is by a blood lead test. Young children are considered most at risk because of their hand to mouth activity. So, even if parents are not directly applying these powders to children they can be easily transferred to them.

“Powders with high amounts of lead are particularly hazardous because powders are easily dispersed and transferred from hand to mouth, and they also have the potential to be inhaled,” Crebbin said. “Since young children have increased hand to mouth behavior and they also absorb more lead than adults from their gastrointestinal tract they are at increased risk of lead poisoning.”

Crebbin also noted that some of the yellow chalk/powders (reported to be made of rice and turmeric) and Sindoor (orange or red colored powder used on forehead, scalps and face for ceremonial purposes) that were tested by the state laboratory contained up to 94 percent of lead.

Louis Girling, deputy health officer and medical director for Child Health and Disability Prevention Program (CHDP) at Santa Clara County pointed to a case in which they recently realized that a child was being poisoned with lead through Indian ceremonial powder that the family was applying to his forehead and face. The child who is now three years old was picked up at CHDP’s routine screening when he was under 1. CHDP is a preventive program that delivers periodic health assessments and services to low-income children and youth in California.

Girling explained that once a child is detected with elevated levels of lead the public nurse would offer basic counsel to the family regarding common sources of lead exposure and would also recommend foods rich in iron and calcium that can reduce lead absorption in the blood. CHDP also informs California Children’s Services (CCS) if a child has higher lead levels. According to Girling, the CCS can provide funds for a low-income group child to be treated by the authorized medical specialists.

The State Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch (CLPPB) also geared at preventing and eliminating lead poisoning notifies and works with the State Food and Drug Branch, the U.S. FDA and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission when it encounters previously unrecognized sources of lead poisoning.

Crebbin said, “The state CLPPB also notifies all of the county Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention programs throughout the state. The environmental and other investigators in counties throughout the state can then look for the products during investigations of lead poisoning cases and also during inspections of restaurants, stores and flea markets.”

The Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Programs in different counties also undertake outreach initiatives to consumers, stores, healthcare providers and merchants in their jurisdictions.
While there are many programs that can offer support for prevention or treatment of lead poisoning particularly for children, the FDA, the agency that oversees the safety of foods imported to the United States, doesn’t have an established safe level of lead.

“The FDA will typically evaluate the potential health hazard regarding the lead in the product based on the concentration, nature of consumption, the quantity consumed and the risk to population who consumes the product,” Dr. Richard Jacobs a retired chemist who worked with FDA for 47 years explained. “If the product poses a health hazard it can take regulatory action. For some findings, for example where it is known that lead arsenate, a prohibited pesticide, was used on food, the FDA could take action at a much lower level.”

FDA spokesperson Michael L. Herndon said that FDA is typically most concerned with products that are consumed in large amount or have the potential to deliver a large accumulation of lead in a short period of time.

Jacobs pointed out that though one ppm or less of lead in imported spices generally won’t pose an excessive exposure and therefore would not be typically actionable, however, in case of infants action might be taken at levels far less than one ppm.

However, sometimes lead may be found in packaging of spices and ceremonial powders. As part of our investigation for this story, New America Media collected 22 samples of spices and ceremonial powders of varying brands, purchased from three different stores in the Bay Area. The Center for Environmental Health (CEH) tested the spices and Sindoor samples using an X-ray Fluorescence Spectrometer, and could not find anything in the spices because the device cannot detect lead levels lower than three or four ppm. But Caroline Cox, research director at CEH, pointed out that ink on the packets of one of the brands that was tested had a high level of lead content in it.

“The red parts of the Pooja brand package were quite high in lead - up to 9,000 parts per million as compared to the 100 ppm required by the Toxics in Packaging law,” said Cox. “Since the ink is on the outside of the package, I think the issue would be transfer to hands rather than transfer to spices inside. I would suggest putting the spices in a container other than the original bag for the Pooja spices and washing hands carefully after handling the bag.”

The FDA only regulates lead in packaging if it is contaminating food. Otherwise, says Jacobs, it goes under the jurisdiction of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

While the findings are not conclusive, experts recommended caution especially when it comes to bulk spices and powders that come in unmarked packages. And if there are doubts, especially where children are concerned, a blood test is not a bad idea.