High lead levels found in Indian spices & powders

Curry spicesby Cristiane Lin, MD

While lead paint is the most common cause of lead poisoning, about one-third of cases are associated with non-paint products like imported utensils, foods and medicinal remedies. Now, a new study points to another potentially dangerous carrier of lead: Indian spices and powders.

In a recent study published online in Pediatrics, the authors report four cases of children with lead poisoning due to imported Indian spices or cultural powders. Lead, which is a neurotoxin,  can cause permanent effects to children’s brain development. These children were treated at the Pediatric Environmental Health Center at Children’s. Blood lead levels in all cases improved after discontinuation of products.

These cases prompted the researchers to investigate the lead content of imported Indian spices and cultural powders in Boston-area Indian stores. Results indicate that one-quarter of imported food spices and products they tested contained detectable lead. In most cases, the lead levels were below European Union’s safety standards for spices. Of note, the FDA hasn’t established a standard for lead levels in spices because no level has been determined to be safe.  It’s likely that lead contamination in spices may come from the environment.

In addition, one-half of cultural powders surveyed contained detectable lead. Several samples of Sindoor (used on the skin as a marriage symbol) contained extremely high lead – over 50 percent by weight. Some of these Sindoor brands had been recalled by the FDA but were still available for purchase. Due to the high lead content, these products can be hazardous if accidentally ingested by infants and young children. The authors found that these high-lead powders contain red lead, which is commonly used as a pigment in henna and lead paint.

Researchers used a numerical model to estimate the potential effects of these products in children. They predicted that these products can cause elevated blood lead in children if the lead levels are sufficiently high and/or the lead is in a form that is readily absorbed by the body. The authors recommend improved labeling of these products, use of low lead cultural powders and increased awareness and screening by pediatricians for use of these products, particularly in immigrant populations.