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Not Just Refugees At Risk Of Excess Lead In Blood

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media
Not Just Refugees At Risk Of Excess Lead In Blood

Potential lead poisoning which may result in screening of refugee children from parts of south Asia may also affect other immigrants from those areas as well, says a senior health official.

The Auckland regional public health service (ARPHS) -- which has a contract to carry out health checks on arriving refugees -- yesterday alerted general practitioners and other doctors to the potential for lead poisoning from sindoor, a red lead pigment used to mark the foreheads of some married Indian women, and other coloured powders used for religious purposes.

The health service was following up work by an American researcher, Cristiane Lin, which showed such problems among Indian children living near Boston. She said some infants were putting their hands in their mouth after touching the marks, and others were being fed food prepared by women with traces of the powder on their hands. In other cases, a child was fed contaminated powder, and another fell ill after eating spices contaminated with lead.

This tipped the service off to 2005 recommendations from American health experts on preventing lead poisoning in newly arrived refugee children, said Auckland medical officer of health Dr Denise Barnfather.

"It was the Lin paper that raised our awareness that the refugee group might also be at risk," she told NZPA.

"This issue is potentially relevant to a wider population -- immigrants as well as refugees."

But the unit had focused on refugees because it was directly involved in checking their health, and officials are now are looking at screening children of south Asian refugees for lead poisoning from a range of sources, including toxic levels in spices and in some cosmetics applied for religious ceremonies.

Government scientists are also looking for a way to screen imported spices for excess lead levels.

Sonia van Gessel, a public health registrar in Auckland, said that usual suspects in lead poisoning cases in New Zealand were contaminated soil, hobbies or work using lead, and Indian ayurvedic remedies, but until now refugees had not been asked about the use of ceremonial powders and consumption of spices.

The New Zealand Food Safety Authority, which routinely tests for the presence of salmonella bacteria in imported pepper, paprika and cinnamon, was also scoping a project with Environmental Sciences and Research to check chemical contaminants in imported spices.

The American research reported high levels of lead -- 89,000 micrograms and 220,000 micrograms per gram in some of the powders used on patients. A one-year-old who had eaten spices containing 12 mcg/g had absorbed enough to have 28 mcg/decilitre in their blood. In New Zealand, doctors are required to report patients with a blood level of 10mcg/decilitre or more.

Tests on 86 foods and spices found 22 with more than 1mcg/g of lead content: the highest was 7mcg/g of lead in salt.

Most of the 58 ceremonial powders had detectable lead, up to a high of nearly 40mcg/g, and some sindoor or kumkum red for marking the heads of married women was 47 percent lead.


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