Lead Risk Lurks in Spice Rack

Indian Spices and Ceremonial Powders Linked to Lead Poisoning in Children

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on March 15, 2010
From the WebMD Archives

March 15, 2010 -- The curry powder in your cabinet may pose a lead poisoning risk to your children, according to a new study.

Researchers in Boston have linked at least four cases of lead poisoning in children to the use of Indian spices or ceremonial powders. Further investigation found one-quarter of the Indian spices and other foodstuffs tested contained detectable lead levels, and more than half of the ceremonial and religious powders also contained lead.

For example, the study showed some readily available sindoor powders contained 47%-64% lead. Sindoor powders are traditionally applied to a woman's scalp as a marriage sign.

Researchers say immigrant children may be especially at risk for lead poisoning due to repeated exposure to these products.

"Although the powders are not meant for consumption, we speculate that infants may inadvertently be exposed by hand-to-mouth transference of topically applied powders or by the hands of parents who handle the powders and then prepare foods for the infant's consumption," write researcher Cristiane Gurgel Lin, MD, PhD, of Children's General Hospital in Boston, and colleagues in Pediatrics.

Infants may also be exposed to these products in utero, through breastfeeding, inhalation, or absorption through the skin.

In the four cases of lead poisoning detailed in the report, all the children had improved blood lead levels after receiving treatment and/or their parents discontinued use of the spices or powders.

The cases prompted researchers to analyze 86 imported spices and 71 ceremonial powders available at Boston-area stores. The results showed 22 of the 86 spices and food products and 46 of the 71 ceremonial powders contained detectable lead levels.

On average, the imported spices contained double the amount of lead found in U.S. brands. Researchers say some ceremonial powders had been previously banned or recalled by the FDA but were still available for sale contained more than 50% lead.

Researchers say similar Indian spices and ceremonial powders are also available for purchase on the Internet. These results suggest the lead content of these products pose a public health risk and merit further testing.

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Lin, C. Pediatrics, 2010; vol 125: pp e828-835.

News release, American Academy of Pediatrics.

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