Stanford-led study finds turmeric adulterated with lead

Stanford Unviersity's hub for faculty for environmental studies has reported the issue possibly started after flooding left turmeric crops dull in colour and chromate was added to remedy it

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Stanford Unviersity's hub for faculty for environmental studies, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, has reported on a new study on turmeric adulteration. The new Stanford-led study has revealed that turmeric is sometimes adulterated with a lead-laced chemical compound in Bangladesh, one of the world's predominant turmeric-growing regions.

Long banned from food products, lead is a potent neurotoxin considered unsafe in any quantity. A related analysis published recently 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," said the papers' lead author Jenna Forsyth, a postdoctoral scholar at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. "We know adulterated turmeric is a source of lead exposure, and we have to do something about it."

A longstanding problem

The first study, available online 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 colour. Demand for bright yellow curry led turmeric processors to add lead chromate - an industrial yellow pigment commonly used to colour toys and furniture - to their product. The practice continued as a cheap, fast way to produce a desirable colour.

Potent neurotoxin

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," said the papers' senior author Stephen Luby, professor of medicine and the director of research for Stanford's 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, published Sept. 17 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 were able to fingerprint 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 the blood.

Beyond Bangladesh

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 incentivised 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.

Toward solutions

Since 2014, Forsyth, Luby and Scott Fendorf, the Terry Huffington Professor in Stanford's School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences - co-authors on both papers - have worked in rural Bangladesh to assess lead exposure. With funding from the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment's Environmental Venture Projects program, they first conducted a population assessment that found more than 30 percent of pregnant women had elevated blood lead levels.

The researchers now plan to focus on shifting consumer behaviours 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, Forsyth, Luby and Fendorf are part of an interdisciplinary project team, funded by the Stanford King Center on Global Development, 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 said.

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