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, elevating blood lead levels, a Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment study showed.
Long banned from food products, lead is a potent neurotoxin considered unsafe in any quantity.
As a potent neurotoxin, lead increases the risk of heart and brain disease in adults and interferes with children’s brain development.
Bangladesh is one of the world’s predominant turmeric-growing regions.
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.
“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 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 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.
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.
About 90 percent 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.
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 blood.
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 U.S. – 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.
Luby is also a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, a member of Stanford Bio-X and a member of the Child Health Research Institute.
Luby, Fendorf and Plambeck are senior fellows at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Plambeck is the Charles A. Holloway Professor of Operations, Information & Technology at Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Banerjee is a lecturer and director of Change Labs at Stanford Graduate School of Education.
Co-authors also include Nicole Ardoin, associate professor at the Graduate School of Education, director of the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.
The Environmental Research study includes co-authors from the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh and Johns Hopkins University.
Stanford co-authors for the Environmental Science & Technology study include Karrie Weaver, a research and development scientist in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences; Kate Maher, an associate professor of Earth system science and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Additional co-authors are from the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh.
For more information
Turmeric means “yellow” in Bengali: Lead chromate pigments added to turmeric threaten public health across Bangladesh
Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment
Center for Innovation in Global Health
Johns Hopkins University
International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh
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