Indian Spices, Powders Linked to Lead Poisoning

"Lead poisoning is a big deal and you could get long-term low-level exposure in spices," said Acheson, who is now a consultant for Leavitt Partners. "You could argue that children are not likely to consume these spices, but in immigrant communities when you grow up with that, lead poisoning could be serious."

FDA Does No Routine Testing of Spices

Spices and cosmetics are regulated by the FDA, but according to Acheson, there is little routine testing of such products. Often the preparations are brought to the United States by relatives.

"If something comes to light or someone gets sick, they typically investigate and get hold of the products and test it," he said. 'If they find the level of toxicity, then you could be talking to whoever make the product about a total recall. They will put on consumer warnings, the whole nine yards."

In the study, scientists tested a variety of Indian products randomly purchased from 15 stores in a 20-mile radius of Boston. Among spices tested, lead levels as high as 7.6 micrograms (ug) per gram (g) were found in 22 of 86 spices tested.

Levels were even higher in powders. Of the 71 powders tested, 46 contained up to 41 ug/g of lead. The content of three sindoor products was more than half lead.

The FDA recommends a 6-ug per day tolerable limit for dietary intake of lead for children aged less than 6 years.

Sindoor, also known as kumkum, is a blood-red or deep-purple colored red powder or liquid dye used by Indian women to indicate they are married, but is sometimes used ritually on children.

Though traditional mixes are herbal, modern sindoor can include synthetic materials like lead, zinc and industrial dyes.

In 2007, the FDA issued an alert warning consumers not to use sindoor, because testing in Illinois determined its lead content was as high as 87 percent. In 2008, the CDC issued a recall on those and other Swad products.

Other imported products from countries like Mexico and Iraq have been implicated in lead poisoning.

A health alert was issued in California in 1998, when a 6-year-old boy was identified with levels of 59 ug/dL during a routine screening. It was later discovered that an aunt had brought tamarindo candy jam products from Mexico.

In May 1997, two toddlers in Michigan had high lead levels caused by eating lozeena, a bright orange powder used by Iraqis to color rice and meat, which contained 7.8-8.9 percent lead. The spice had been brought over by their grandmother.

Study researchers have said that pediatricians need to be more aware of lead poisoning in imported products used in South Asian communities so they can test children more routinely.

Lead targets hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein in red blood cells, according to the Mayo Clinic, and attacks the nervous system. Symptoms usually don't appear until dangerous levels have accumulated.

Symptoms can include irritability, loss of appetite, weight loss, sluggishness and fatigue, as well as abdominal pain and anemia, according to the Mayo Clinic.

When pregnant women are exposed to lead, their babies may exhibit learning difficulties and slowed growth.

Adults are also susceptible to lead poisoning and can experience symptoms of pain or numbing of the extremities, muscular weakness and headaches, as well as memory loss and mood disorders.

Anjani Sarma, mother of a 2-year-old and 5-year-old from Palo Alto, Calif., said her children are not exposed to sindoor, but she is familiar with the powder.

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