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Some spices may be a source of lead exposure in kids, study finds

There is no national limit for lead contamination in spices.

Spices may be a source of lead exposure in children.
Spices may be a source of lead exposure in children.Read moreiStock

Paint chips in older homes, contaminated soil, and water pumped though lead pipes are all known sources of lead exposure for children. Now, you might add to that list spices such as turmeric, chili powder, and vanilla.

In a small study, researchers in North Carolina found lead contamination in spices, herbal remedies, and ceremonial powders in the homes of children with elevated blood lead levels, according to data published last week by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The study was led by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

The food items that had the highest levels of lead in the study included samples of chili powder/red pepper, cumin, coriander, anise, turmeric, and vanilla.

For children, there is no safe blood lead level. Even low levels of lead poisoning can affect IQ, the ability to pay attention, and academic achievement.

Nor are adults immune from the adverse effects associated with lead contamination. Health problems include reproductive issues for both men and women, high blood pressure, nerve disorders, memory and concentration problems, and muscle and joint pain, according to the CDC.

In the United States, there is no national limit for lead contamination in spices. The Food and Drug Administration has set a limit for lead in natural-source food-color additives like paprika, saffron, and turmeric at 10 milligrams per kilogram. For products that children will eat, such as candy, the limit is 0.1 mg/kg.

"However, spices are not considered food intended for consumption by children," the researchers state.

Nationally, the number of cases of elevated blood lead levels in children has been decreasing. But in one North Carolina county, there was a significant increase, from 27 reported cases of elevated blood lead levels in 2013 to 44 cases in 2017.

Lead investigations were conducted at 983 homes in North Carolina from January 2011 to January 2018, with 61 children in 59 properties included in the final report.

The majority of the children lived in new homes, which lessened the likelihood paint chips were a culprit — 42 homes were built after 1978, when lead-based paints were banned in the U.S. Brass objects, jewelry, cookware, and other consumer items that might have contained lead were found in 10 of the homes. In 32 of the homes, there was no evidence of lead in paint, dust, mini-blinds, faucets, bathtub glaze, or furniture finish. But in seven of the homes, the researchers found that the collected samples of spices, herbal remedies, and ceremonial powders (nonfood products used for social or religious markings) – which children might accidentally ingest – contained high levels of lead.

According to an earlier national survey of Americans' eating habits by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, estimates for the amount of spices consumed by children is: low. However, those amounts may differ for children whose parents emigrated from Southeast Asia, where spices are used more often in cooking.

About 95 percent of the spices consumed in the U.S. are imported and often grown in countries polluted by leaded gasoline, smelters, battery-manufacturing plants, and mines. In addition, the spices also may be deliberately adulterated with lead to enhance color or increase weight. Regulation is complicated by internet sales and importation through consumer travel.

The researchers recommended that lead investigators sample spices, herbal remedies, and ceremonial powders and attempt to document product origin and level of consumption. Food-safety regulators at the port of entry should test the products for heavy metals, and a national maximum allowable limit for lead in spices should be set, they also recommended.