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Health Department Warns South Asian NYers About Lead Risks In Spices And Powders

A handout from the New York City Health Department about curbing lead poisoning risk.
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A handout from the New York City Health Department about curbing lead poisoning risk.

The South Asian community in New York City is at high risk for lead poisoning, the Health Department warned on Wednesday with the launch of a new campaign to raise awareness about lead poisoning. The initiative is part of Mayor Bill de Blasio's recently-announced LeadFreeNYC initiative, which aims to screen apartments and eliminate lead exposure among children over the next two years.

Dr. Paromita Hore, the Deputy Director of the Environmental Exposure Assessment Unit at the Health Department, tells Gothamist that the Health Department's data shows "that New York City's South Asian children and pregnant women are especially at risk for elevated blood lead levels." A study published in the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health two years ago found that 230 South Asian New Yorkers, who identified as Bangladeshi, Pakistani, or Indian, had 5 micrograms per deciliter (what the Center for Disease Control considers to be a health concern) or higher of lead in their blood.

20% of adult participants and 15% of children had blood lead levels of 5 micrograms per deciliter or higher, compared to the citywide average of 5% of adults and 2.5% of children with this level of lead in their blood. The study examined a variety of factors, including lack of health care, ethnicity, and disparities in how information about lead poisoning is disseminated, could be resulting in elevated blood lead levels.

The Health Department's campaign has also singled out certain consumer products, such as the spices chili and turmeric, powders including kohl and sindoor, and remedies as a part of traditional Ayurvedic health practices that have been known to sometimes contain traces of lead.

The DOH tested 3,000 consumer products from New York City-area stores as part of a nine year study that examined potential lead poisoning sources. They found that over 50% of the spice samples (the most frequently tested product) had traces of lead, while over 30% had a lead concentration of over 2 ppm. The data found that spices bought in Bangladesh, Georgia, Nepal, Morocco, and Pakistan had the highest concentrations of lead.

"Some South Asian cosmetics, religious powders, Ayurvedic medicines and spices can contain lead, but lead may not be listed on the products’ packaging,” Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot said in the press release. “We want the South Asian community to be aware of this potential hazard and be careful when using these types of products."

As part of the initiative, the Health Department says it will be disseminating brochures and further information about lead poisoning at bus shelters, in newspaper ads, and within neighborhood shops and community organizations all around the city; it will be available in Hindi, Bengali, and Urdu, as well as English.

Peeling lead paint within apartments is still the primary source of lead exposure in New York City among residents of all races and ethnicities. The Health Department and the New York City Housing Authority have both faced scrutiny in recent years for underreporting the exact number of people who have been exposed to lead poisoning. A 2017 report revealed that for four years, the NYCHA neglected to conduct mandatory annual lead paint inspections. Exposure to lead paint can lead to severe cognitive, neurological, and behavioral problems, particularly in children, and infertility and miscarriage for adults.

As part of this particular campaign, the Health Department urges New Yorkers to buy locally-produced spices and cosmetic powders, and to speak with their doctors about blood lead tests if they may have come into contact with goods that may contain lead.

"Part of this campaign is at least some risk management approach: if you are using, at least wash your hands after," Hore says."Long term, we would want the community’s help to provide us with an alternative that we could advise for individuals or they could advise among themselves because at the end of the day, we don’t them to be potentially be exposed to lead as well as their children."

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