Health Notes : Lead in spices, herbal remedies, ceremonial powders is highly injurious, particularly for children

Health news

The US
Center for Disease Control and Prevention has found that in North Carolina, 61
children of Asian descent (specifically, Indians, Pakistanis and Afghans) have
elevated blood lead levels (BLLs). They used non-edible (kumkum, sindoor,
surma) and edible(saffron, turmeric) items that had high lead levels. Some
children ate Balgutti Kessaria (an Ayurvedic medicine) which contained very
high lead levels. The CDC is diligently following up these cases.

Health Notes : Lead in spices, herbal remedies, ceremonial powders is highly injurious, particularly for children

By Dr.
K.S. Parthasarathy

High blood
lead levels in the Indian population are a very serious issue.

A recent
meta-analysis identified 1,066 articles on blood lead levels in various Indian
populations (Environment International, December 2018). The researchers
estimated that lead exposure resulted in 4.9 million Disability Adjusted
Life Years – 4.9 million years lost due to ill health, disability or early
death. Worldwide, this number for 2016 is 13.9 million years.

Researchers
from Aligarh Muslim University and King George Medical University reported in Indian
Pediatrics
of January 2018 that 44.2 per cent of children in their study
had blood lead levels above 10 microgramme per dL (100 ml), the WHO cutoff.

Researchers
from CMC Vellore reported similar results (Indian Pediatrics 2014). They found
that 31 per cent (21/67) of the children with elevated blood lead levels had
poor cognitive scores. If the US CDC reference level of 5 microgramme per dL is
accepted, 90 per cent of preschoolers in the slums of Vellore have high BLLs,
Dr. Venkata Raghava Mohan a researcher in the Vellore study responded to this
writer’s query.

Values in
the DOE report ranged from 101 ppm to 130,797 ppm.

The central
and state governments must enforce the rules strictly and act now against this
eternal source of lead for the sake of our children.

The WHO
(Lead Poisoning and Health, August 2018) cautioned that lead is toxic; it
accumulates in the body and affects multiple systems; it is particularly
harmful to young children. Once in the body, lead is distributed in the brain,
liver, kidney and bones. Teeth and bones store them; it accumulates over time.
Specialists usually assess human exposure to lead by measuring lead in blood.

“Lead
can affect children’s brain development resulting in reduced intelligence
quotient, behavioural changes such as reduced attention span and increased
anti-social behaviour and reduced educational attainment. Lead exposure also
causes anemia, hypertension, renal impairment, immuno-toxicity and toxicity to
the reproductive organs. The neurological and behavioural effects of lead are believed
to be irreversible.” WHO added.

Pregnant
women exposed to lead will have lead-tainted bones that may release lead into
blood and act a source of exposure to the developing fetus.

There is
no safe threshold for lead exposure.

If we have
to go by the US experience, lead-tainted paint will be a major source of lead
poisoning in India. Universal screening of children may not be feasible.
However, preventive steps must start now.

Reports from
BARC in the 1990s highlighted the need to screen lead in spices, herbal
remedies and ceremonial powders.

Blood lead
levels that were considered previously to be safe are now understood to
compromise health and injure multiple organs, even in the absence of overt
symptoms.” We must keep this WHO assessment in mind while formulating our
policies.

(Dr K.S.
Parthasarathy is a former Secretary of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board)

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