Visi Tilak, a writer, musician and artist who emigrated from India, prepares her children's daily meals with fragrant spices that are a staple of Indian cooking, including tumeric, coriander and garam masala.
"They have been exposed to Indian spices since they were born," said the Ashland, Mass., blogger and mother of a 1-year-old and a 6-year-old.
Now, a study published today in the journal Pediatrics said young children who regularly ingest some imported Indian spices may be exposed to lead -- a dangerous neurotoxin.
The study, conducted from 2006 to 2008, followed patients from the Pediatric Environmental Health Center at Children's Hospital in Boston who had ingested or been exposed to Indian spices and powders.
One 12-month-old boy in the case study was found to have lead poisoning after regularly eating spices such as tumeric, black mustard seed and asafetida.
When the family discontinued use of the spices, his blood lead levels went down within six months.
But of greater concern to researchers are religious powders like cherry-colored "sindoor" -- which is applied cosmetically on the skin and which Tilak also uses routinely in her home.
Some of these ritual powders comprise 47 to 64 percent lead, according to the study, and can be particularly dangerous when applied on young children.
Food products had a lower percentage of lead compared with powders, but researchers were particularly concerned about children who are chronically exposed to these products -- up to several times a week -- at a young age.
"Although the powders are not meant for consumption, we speculate that infants may be inadvertently exposed by hand-to-mouth transference of topically applied powders or by the hands of parents who handle the powders or who prepare food for the infant," said the study's lead co-author Dr. Cristiane Gurgel Lin, now a pediatrician at Seton Medical Center in Austin, Texas.
Approximately 250,000 American children have dangerous lead levels -- greater than 10 micrograms (ug) of lead per deciliter (dL) of blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Children under age 6 are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning, which is asymptomatic but can lead to dangerous neurological impairment.
The use of lead-based paints for homes, toys and household furniture has been banned in the United States since 1978, but children can be exposed by eating dust particles from old paint and drinking water from older plumbing fixtures.
Spices and "folk" powders also have been implicated as lead sources in countries including India.
The Boston researchers cited four children with lead poisoning, three of which were linked to the religious powders. Their families' homes were tested to rule out other sources of lead.
One 10-month-old Indian boy was referred for elevated blood levels of 43 ug/dL. His mother reported that she had rubbed religious powder on the boy's forehead since he was several weeks old.
Another 9-month-old Indian boy had levels of 21 ug/dL after his parents routinely applied orange shringar to his forehead. A 3-year-old had levels of 18 ug/dL from ingesting a powder.
The child who had ingested the spices had levels of 28 ug/dL.
"This is not a total shocker," said Dr. David Acheson, the former associate commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). "Most come from the color dyes, particularly the reds, which often have lead in them."