A new study led by Rutgers School of Public Health alum, Dr. Paromita Hore, and colleagues at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, highlights the potential risks of lead exposure from “non-traditional” sources, even as U.S. population blood levels continue to decline. “While lead-based paint and occupational lead hazards remain the primary sources of lead exposures among New York City’s lead-poisoned children and men, respectively, these are not the only possible lead sources,” the researchers write.
Dr. Hore and colleagues share their experience with investigating spices as a potential source of lead exposure. Between 2008 and 2017, the NYC Health Department tested over 3,000 samples of consumer products during investigations of lead poisoning cases and surveys of local stores. Spices were the most frequently tested product: nearly 1,500 samples from 41 countries were tested.
More than half of the spice samples had detectable lead concentrations, and more than 30 percent had lead concentrations greater than 2 parts per million (ppm) – a permissible limit for lead in certain food additives used as a guidance value by NYC Health Department.
The authors also found that spices purchased abroad had much higher average lead content than spices bought in the U.S. For example, turmeric and Georgian kharcho suneli purchased in NYC had average lead concentrations below 2 ppm, but when the same spices were purchased abroad, the average concentrations exceeded 50 ppm.
“The highest concentrations of lead were found in spices purchased in the countries Georgia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, and Morocco,” comments Dr. Hore.
In NYC, children and pregnant women of Georgian and South Asian ancestry are disproportionately represented among the lead-exposed population. Although not the only source of lead exposure, spices are an important factor to consider in these high-risk groups. “Public health professionals and medical providers should also be aware of spices as a potential risk factor for lead exposure and screen at-risk populations,” according to the authors.
Most of the contaminated spices purchased abroad were in unmarked containers without brand name information. The highest lead levels were measured in the Georgian spice kviteli kvavili, or “yellow flower.” Examples of other contaminated spices purchased abroad included turmeric, hot pepper, chili powder, and paprika.
The study has important implications for public health programs, policy, and international food safety regulations.
“Overall, a solely localized or national approach to address spice contamination will not be adequate, as the problem is global,” concludes Dr. Hore.
Dr. Hore graduated from the Rutgers School of Public Health with her PhD in environmental and occupational health with a focus on risk assessment. She is currently the deputy director of Environmental Risk Assessment at the Bureau of Environmental Disease and Injury Prevention, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
“A Spoonful of Lead: A 10-Year Look at Spices as a Potential Source of Lead Exposure,” was recently published in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice.