Lead Poisoning Could Lurk in Indian Spices

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Indian researcher tested 52 samples of chili, cumin, curry powder, turmeric, garam masala and chat masala. She found lead in all of them.

Exposure to the heavy metal from spice powders is affecting child health across the country, says a report in The Guardian.

This has made lead poisoning a longstanding public health issue in India

A study this year by Unicef and the NGO Pure Earth documented childhood lead poisoning. “In data gathered over 15 years, we’ve found that India is the most affected,” says Richard Fuller, founder of Pure Earth. And the problem often comes from an unexpected source – Indian spices and curry powders.

Dr Ipsita Mazumdar is a professor of biochemistry at Kolkata’s KPC Medical College and Hospital and has been studying the effects of lead poisoning from food powders since 2014.

Over a three-month period, Mazumdar tested some of the country’s most popular spices. She tested 52 samples of turmeric, assessing branded and packaged varieties, as well as loose powders sold by street vendors in Kolkata.

She found lead in all of them. The cause, she found, was food coloring contaminated with compounds of lead.

“Keep in mind that the ill effects of lead exposure build up over time and that these spices are used in households every day and across India,” she says. “Unlike other sources of lead contamination that have been identified, like automobile exhaust, leaded paints and pipes used in homes, this is a hidden hazard. We really aren’t aware of the full scope of this problem yet.”

Lead exposure can be particularly harmful to children under five, who absorb 4–5 times more of the toxic metal from a given source than adults and, as a result, can suffer long-term physical, cognitive and neurological damage.

Back in 2010, after several reports of lead poisoning in Indian children in the Boston area were linked to consumption of Indian spices, researchers at Children’s Hospital Boston and the Harvard School of Public Health decided to measure the amount of lead in the seasonings as well as in ceremonial powders commonly used to mark newborn Indian infants for religious and cultural purposes.

The team visited 15 Indian specialty stores in the Boston area and purchased 71 cultural powders and 86 spices and food products. About 25% of the food items, including spices such as cardamom, fenugreek and chili powder, contained more than 1 microgram of lead per gram of product. About 65% of the ceremonial powders, including sindoor, which is used as a symbol of marriage, contained the same amount. Those levels are below the E.U.’s acceptable threshold of 2 to 3 mcg/g of lead, but the study’s authors say that regardless of the amount, the presence of lead in these products should be a reason for concern, since they could potentially add to exposure from other sources of the neurotoxin in a child’s environment. (Three of the food products the team tested exceeded the E.U. guidelines: two brands of sindav salt and one type of sindaloo powder, or sea salt.)

With repeated exposure at high enough levels, lead can cause behavioral changes in children, says the 2010 report in TIME.

One of India’s biggest studies on lead poisoning was conducted in 1995 by the George Foundation (now Shanti Bhavan), which tested the blood of 15,000 children and 5,000 adults. “We found that lead poisoning was a major obstacle to growth, affecting more than 50% of Indian children before puberty,” says Ajit George, director of operations for the Shanti Bhavan children’s project.

About half of the under-12s in the study had a blood lead level double that considered by the World Health Organization to cause symptoms of decreased intelligence, behavioral difficulties and learning problems.

“In rural India, high levels of lead were found in cooking utensils, the moulds of aluminum cookware and in ceramic glaze,” says George.

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