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Sindoor powder sold in the United States and India could contain unsafe levels of lead, a study conducted in the US has found. Results reveal that there is continued need for monitoring for lead in sindoor sold in the US and that is brought into the country by travelers from India, despite FDA warnings, according to the report published this month.
Lead has been linked to poisoning, especially in children, when inadvertently ingested. The exposure to the heavy metal in children can lead to abdominal pain, learning disabilities, attention deficit, slowed growth, and behavioral issues.
The study, conducted by Dr. Derek Shendell of Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey, involved lead analysis of 95 samples of sindoor from 66 South Asian stores in New Jersey and 23 samples from India with atomic absorption spectrophotometry methods. The researchers found that 79 (83.2%) sindoor samples from the US and 18 (78.3%) samples bought in India contained 1.0 or more micrograms of lead per gram of powder. The maximum lead content detected in both US and India samples was more than 300,000 micrograms per gram. Of the US sindoor samples analysed, 19 per cent contained more than 20 micrograms per gram of lead, which is the limit set by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), while 43 per cent of the samples from India exceeded this limit.
Sindoor, also known as kumkum or vermilion, is a red powder used by Hindus for religious and cultural purposes. Lead tetroxide, also called red lead, is often added to give the powder a darker red tinge.
“We are diverse here with a lot of individuals who emigrate or travel from many parts of the world through airports on a weekly basis,” Dr. Shendell told Reuters. “If there is a product that could be contaminated with lead, it’s of public health interest. There’s possibility of spread through ingestion or inhalation.” He pointed out that there is no safe level of lead, and that it shouldn’t be in our bodies, especially for children under the age of 6 years.
A study conducted by Children’s Hospital Boston, Wellesley College, and the Harvard School of Public Health in 2010 described four cases of pediatric lead poisoning in the US from Indian spices or cultural powders like sindoor. The study also mentioned cosmetics such as kohl and henna; contaminated Indian spices like brown mustard seed, asafoetida, and turmeric; and ayurvedic medicines as substances containing lead.
Children, particularly infants, can get exposed to lead over long periods of time, through inadvertent exposure by hand-to-mouth transference of topically applied powders, or by the hands of parents who handle the powder and then prepare food, the study said. Infants can also get exposed to these products even before they are born, or through breastfeeding, inhalation of particles, or absorption through skin.
A case of elevated levels of blood lead in an infant who was mostly breast-fed was published in the Journal of Clinical Toxicology in 2008. The case pertained to a 13-month-old boy with an elevated blood lead level of 57 µg/dL. It was found after investigations that the family was using sindoor as food colouring.
Sindoor consumption can cause damage in adult bodies as well. The kidneys of a 35-year-old man in Mehsana, Gujarat, were found to have been affected because of prolonged consumption of sindoor. The man visited Civil Kidney Hospital in Ahmedabad in 2015, complaining of acute abdominal pain, vomiting, and facial puffiness, the Times of India had reported then. He later doctors that he had been consuming sindoor for 11 years considering it as prasad from temple.
In the United States, the FDA issued general warnings about sindoor in 2007 after high lead content was found in a particular brand following a test by the Illinois Department of Health. The company then recalled the product.