State and local health officials have discovered alarming levels of lead — in some cases tens of thousands of times higher than federal guidelines — in traditional cosmetics used in Hindu and Muslim religious practices and South and Southeast Asian cultures.
In addition, high lead levels have been found in the spice turmeric, particularly in smaller batches brought in from overseas by individual travelers.
Washington and Multnomah counties, together with the Oregon Health Authority, are asking families and health care providers to learn about the risks and make sure children and pregnant women have their blood levels tested if they have been exposed to potentially lead-tainted products.
Working with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in an ongoing investigation, officials are asking community organizations, faith groups and local businesses to help identify dangerous products and educate community members about the risks of lead poisoning.
“We fully respect the deep cultural and spiritual traditions of our diverse communities,” OHA Public Health Division toxicologist and deputy state epidemiologist Ali Hamade said. “Children and pregnant women are most vulnerable to lead poisoning, so we’re asking for help from families, community leaders, shop owners and public agencies to recognize the risk and prevent harm.”
Products of concern
The following products have been found to contain dangerous levels of lead:
Sindoor, Kumkum, Tikka, and Roli
These bright red-orange powders are commonly used for Hindu religious purposes and among communities from and around South Asia. Lead is sometimes used to brighten the color or to increase the weight of the product. People can be exposed to lead when powders that contain lead enter the body through the eyes or mouth.
Health officials have discovered high lead content in samples of sindoor purchased locally under the brands:
Ancient Veda Sindoor, 37% lead, 37,000 times the FDA-recommended limit.
Divine Supplies Sindoor, 43% lead, 43,000 times the FDA-recommended limit.
Also known as kajal, surma or sormeh, this black ore is applied to the eyes for spiritual, medicinal or cosmetic purposes. It is traditionally used on babies and young children for religious purposes. The FDA has banned the import of kohl because one way of making the product is by grinding a mineral called galena — also known as lead ore — into a powder and then mixing it with other ingredients.
Multnomah County has found lead in products purchased locally and abroad, including in the brands:
Hashmi Surma Special, 17% lead, 17,000 times the recommended limit.
Al-Asmad Alharmain Zam Zam & Rose Water, 59% lead, 58,600 times the recommended limit.
This yellow-orange root and spice is used frequently in South Asian cuisine, medicine and traditional practices. It has become widely used around the world. Lead powder is sometimes added to turmeric root or powder to make the product more vibrant and to cover insect damage. People are then exposed to the lead when that spice is eaten. Health officials are primarily concerned about the spice hand-carried into the United States from India or Bangladesh, rather than products sold in major U.S. supermarkets.
One recent sample brought from India contained 1,240 parts per million of lead. There is no FDA regulatory limit or recommendation for lead in spice, but for reference, the FDA has set a limit of 0.1 parts per million for candy likely to be consumed frequently by children.
Recommendations to consumers
Public health officials and local health experts are urging families to stop using these products on children and pregnant women. They also recommend blood lead testing if pregnant women or children may have been exposed to lead by using these products.
Families and shop owners can call the Multnomah County Health Department Leadline at 503-988-4000, or visit www.leadline.org, to learn more about lead testing for children and products. Additional information is available at healthoregon.org/lead.
Local health officials are working with culturally specific community groups, store owners and religious leaders to warn residents of risks associated with certain products. They’re asking shop owners, families and community leaders to contact their local public health department with any concerns, questions or requests for community outreach (interpretation is always free):
Washington County Health Care Resource Line: 503-846-8851
Multnomah County Leadline: 503-988-4000
OHA and county officials are working with the FDA to test more products and consider whether alerts should be in place to stop the import of any product known to have dangerous levels of lead. Until the source and scope of the lead contamination are better understood, local health officials are also asking shop owners to protect their customers by removing products known to contain lead and testing products that may contain lead.
Risk of lead
Oregon considers a blood lead level of at least 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood as the threshold for lead poisoning. Health care providers and laboratories in Oregon are required by law to report certain diseases and conditions — including lead poisoning — to local health departments.
On average, 270 Oregonians are diagnosed with lead poisoning each year, and about one-third of those are children younger than 6. The most common cases — about a third — come from ingesting paint and paint dust containing lead, but exposures from traditional cosmetics and informally imported spices have been identified in the past.
But between 2018 and 2019, state and local health departments in Oregon have identified 25 lead poisoning cases where the probable source was kohl or surma and an additional seven lead poisoning cases where the probable source was turmeric brought from overseas. A small number of lead poisoning cases have also been associated with exposure to powders such as sindoor or kumkum.