Indian Spices Pose a Serious Risk of Lead Poisoning

by Bharat Duggal
Indian Spices Pose a Serious Risk of Lead Poisoning

January 15, 2021

While lead-based paint and improper processing of lead-acid car batteries remain the primary sources of lead exposures, an unexpected source is now also being identified as a rising threat.

This emerging source of lead-poisoning is something that you most probably consume seven days a week; they are included in almost every meal, in one way or the other – Spices and Curry Powders! The widespread usage of herbs and curry powders – the ‘wonder ingredients’- in our dishes is a new source of lead-based infections, according to a study by US-based researchers Paromita Hore, Kolapo Alex-Oni, Slavenka Sedlar, and Deborah Nagin.

The Wonder Ingredients

A US study titled A spoonful of lead – a 10-Year Look at Spices as a Potential Source of Lead Exposure found out that more than 50% of the spice samples they collected had a detectable lead. The wonder ingredients are being detected as dangerous components primarily because of manufacturers’ fault and adulteration in the process. The study found that lead concentration was exceptionally high in spices imported from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.

Another study published in Pediatrics found that out of the 71 cultural powders and 86 spices present in 15 Indian speciality stores in the Boston area, about 25% of the food items contained more than one microgram of lead per gram of product.

Elevated concentration of lead has been found in Indian spices

Why Are Spices Contaminated With Lead?

Dr. Ipsita Mazumdar, a biochemistry professor at Kolkata’s KPC Medical College and Hospital, told the Guardian that the leading cause behind the high lead concentration in spices is the ‘food colouring’ that is contaminated with metallic-lead compounds. Dr. Mazumdar found out that to brighten the colour of spices, manufacturers add lead compounds to them.  

Like, in turmeric, to intensify its golden colour, ‘lead chromate’ is added to the natural herb. Or in the case of chilli powder, ‘lead oxide’ is put in for a rich red hue. While researchers identified small quantities of lead in the other examined spices, including curry powder, garam and chatted masalas, none showed such high contamination levels as turmeric and chilli.

Risks & Precautions

Lead exposure can be exceptionally damaging to children under the age of five. Severe prolonged poisoning cases can even lead to permanent cognitive and developmental damage, leading to long-term physical, mental and neurological damage.

According to the Mayo Clinic, lead poisoning can be tricky to detect — even people who appear healthy can have high blood levels of lead. Signs and traits usually don’t appear until serious amounts have accumulated.

Keep in mind that the ill consequences of lead exposure build up over time and that these relishes are used in households every day and across India…unlike other roots of lead poisoning that have been identified, like auto exhaust, leaded paints and pipes used in houses, this is a hidden peril. We aren't aware of the full scope of this problem yet.

- Dr. Ipsita Mazumdar

Exposure to the heavy metal from spice particles and car batteries is influencing child health across the subcontinent.

Exposure to the heavy metal from spice powders and car batteries is affecting child health across the subcontinent.

Way Forward

According to experts, lead poisoning can be treated in most cases by minimising the child’s exposure and ensuring that they consume a healthy diet with adequate iron, calcium and vitamin C as deficiencies in these can increase the absorption of lead by the body.

If this problem is not dealt with urgently, it could lead to several unprecedented events. A recent event highlighted the risks that lead poisoning can pose. The event was the outbreak of a mystery illness in early December in the south Indian city of Eluru. The severity of the illness was such that more than 560 people were hospitalised. While the recovery tended to be quick, one person lost his life fighting with this mystery disease.

Disastrous Consequences

Based on preliminary results by the All-India Institutes of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), which analysed blood samples from patients, Andhra Pradesh government mentioned that pesticide deposit in the water was the “main cause” for the illness.

The institution also reported high heavy metal content in local milk, while NEERI found dangerous mercury levels in surface water. While efforts towards eliminating prolonged lead poisoning are the need of the hour, the reality seems to be completely different. A 2020 study by UNICEF and the NGO Pure Earth concluded on a rather scary note.

Even after years of information about the damaging impacts, Richard Fuller, founder of Pure Earth, mentioned that “In data gathered over 15 years, we’ve found that India is the most affected” and the problem often comes from Indian spices and curry powders.

To make sure events similar to the Eluru mystery illness do not occur again, corporations will have to put the customer’s welfare and health over the prospects of high revenue. It is also a time for food authorities to introspect and improve testing to ensure that eatables that could cause significant damage to the consumers are not approved.

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