Stanford Researchers Find Lead in Commonly Used Spice

Often unaware of the dangers, some spice processors in Bangladesh use an industrial lead chromate pigment to imbue turmeric with a bright yellow color prized for curries and other traditional dishes.

Processors in Bangladesh, one of the world’s predominant regions for growing turmeric, sometimes add a lead-laced chemical compound to the spice, according to new research.

Turmeric, billed as a health booster and healing agent, may be the source of cognitive defects and other severe ailments. Long banned from food products, lead is a potent neurotoxin considered unsafe in any quantity. A related analysis also confirms for the first time that turmeric is likely the primary contributor to elevated blood lead levels among Bangladeshis surveyed.

“People are unknowingly consuming something that could cause major health issues,” says Jenna Forsyth, a postdoctoral scholar at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University and lead author of two papers. “We know adulterated turmeric is a source of lead exposure, and we have to do something about it.”


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The dangers of eating lead

The first study, which appears in Environmental Research, involves a range of analyses, including interviews with farmers and spice processors in several Bangladesh districts, which together produce nearly half of the nation’s turmeric. Many traced the issue to the 1980s, when a massive flood left turmeric crops wet and relatively dull in color. Demand for bright yellow curry led turmeric processors to add lead chromate—an industrial yellow pigment commonly used to color toys and furniture—to their product. The practice continued as a cheap, fast way to produce a desirable color.

As a potent neurotoxin, lead increases the risk of heart and brain disease in adults and interferes with children’s brain development. About 90% of children with elevated blood lead levels live in lower-income countries, and resulting cognitive damages are associated with nearly one trillion dollars in lost productivity annually.

“Unlike other metals, there is no safe consumption limit for lead, it’s a neurotoxin in its totality,” says the papers’ senior author Stephen Luby, professor of medicine and the director of research for the Center for Innovation in Global Health. “We cannot console ourselves proposing that if the contamination were down to such and such level, it would have been safe.”

The related study, which appears in Environmental Science & Technology, looked at various potential sources of blood lead level contamination in Bangladeshis. Lead comes in various forms, called isotopes, and the ratios of those isotopes vary by the lead’s origin. The researchers could point to lead chromate-adulterated turmeric as the most likely culprit by matching it to lead isotopes in people’s blood. The research is the first to directly link lead in turmeric to lead levels in blood.

Risks for other countries?

The researchers did not find direct evidence of contaminated turmeric beyond Bangladesh, and they point out that food safety checks by the importing countries have incentivized large-scale Bangladesh spice processors to limit the amount of lead added to turmeric destined for export. However, the researchers caution, “the current system of periodic food safety checks may catch only a fraction of the adulterated turmeric being traded worldwide.”

In fact, since 2011, more than 15 brands of turmeric—distributed to countries including the US—have been recalled due to excessive levels of lead.

While these recalls and previous studies found the presence of lead in turmeric, none clearly identified the source (some suggested it might be linked to soil contamination), proved the link to blood lead levels or revealed the problem’s pervasiveness and incentives perpetuating it.

Fixing the problem

Since 2014, the researchers have worked in rural Bangladesh to assess lead exposure. They first conducted a population assessment that found more than 30% of pregnant women had elevated blood lead levels.

The researchers now plan to focus on shifting consumer behaviors away from eating contaminated turmeric and reducing incentives for the practice. They suggest more effective and efficient drying technologies for turmeric processing. They also recommend that import inspectors around the world screen turmeric with X-ray devices that can detect lead and other chemicals.

Although few low-cost answers seem readily available in Bangladesh, the researchers suggest engaging consumers, producers, and other stakeholders focused on food safety and public health could provide the seeds of a solution. To that end, the researchers are part of a team that’s seeking solutions to reduce lead exposure from turmeric, battery recycling, and other sources in Bangladesh and beyond.

Among other goals, the team plans to develop business opportunities that reduce lead exposure. One team member, bioengineer Manu Prakash, is developing low-cost technologies to measure lead in turmeric, blood, and other sources. Other collaborators, Shilajeet Banerjee and Erica Plambeck, are studying ways to shift demand and create business opportunities for lead-free turmeric.

“Jenna’s remarkable work allows us to collaborate with stakeholders in Bangladesh to target effective prevention,” Luby says.

The Environmental Research study includes coauthors from Stanford University, the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Bangladesh, and Johns Hopkins University. Additional coauthors for the Environmental Science & Technology study are from Stanford and the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research.

Funding for both studies came from the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford’s Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, the Stanford King Center on Global Development, and Stanford’s Center for South Asia. The United States Agency for International Development and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also funded the blood lead exposure study. The Stanford King Center on Global Development funds the new team project.

Source: Stanford University

Editor's Note: A phone call to the makers of the organic turmeric spice brand, Simply Organic, revealed that their turmeric does not come from Bangladesh, and it is tested for metals.

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