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In this video, I explore the issue of lead poisoning with turmeric adulteration as the angle.

I interviewed Drew McCartor from Pure Earth, Rachel Silverman from the Center for Global Development and Kris Newby who reported on turmeric adulteration for Stanford. I also visited a lab to actually test my own turmeric!

Would love to hear what you think!

Thanks to everyone who provided valuable feedback.

Charities mentioned

Pure Earth 
Center For Global Development

Main sources

The Vice of Spice by Wudan Yan for Undark 
Dylan Matthews for Vox  
Kris Newby for Stanford Magazine 

Transcript with the rest of the sources 


(Parts may be missing. For example, the laboratory visit isn’t included. There is also no clear indication of who is speaking. So I suggest watching the actual video, as I’ll likely never get around to fixing these things.)

So, I really like making curries, but I recently discovered something alarming.

A warning about the spices in your food.

Just what’s in your spice cabinet?

Some spices may contain something extra.

Beneath its golden exterior lies a hidden danger.

Traders in Bangladesh intentionally added the chemical.

We found very high levels of lead.

So high they exceeded the maximum amount anyone should have in a day.

Lead that’s being added to the food.

It’s most dangerous for children.

It causes devastating effects.

What about this? Turmeric.

Turns out turmeric, known for giving curry its iconic golden hue, might contain a toxic secret. Some manufacturers add lead, a poisonous metal with no safe level of exposure.

Lead poisoning impacts 1 in 3 children worldwide, significantly hindering their development. In adults it can cause cardiovascular problems and early death.

We often associate lead with paint or old water pipes, but apparently it’s in spices too! While the West has largely tackled lead poisoning, it remains a major concern elsewhere.

So I have to know: Why do they add lead to turmeric? Is my curry here in Europe safe? And how can we prevent lead poisoning in children? 

The scale of the issue is enormous. 800 million children, probably many billions of adults.

A lot of the damages last forever.

In this video, I'll explore the scale of the issue, test my own turmeric for lead, and highlight worldwide actions against lead poisoning.

In the early 1990s, Mohammad Abdullah Sheikh was drawn to the bright yellow of turmeric at a market.

Curious, he learned from the traders that this color is achieved by adding a substance called peuri. So he applied their advice to his own turmeric business. Over the next 30 years, his sales boosted significantly. Consumers clearly preferred the brighter turmeric. Peuri is better known to us as lead chromate, the same chemical that was used to paint those classic yellow school buses. 

This practice was widespread among turmeric traders. But that changed in 2019, when Stanford researchers discovered the lead in turmeric exceeded Bangladesh’s legal limit up to 500 times. They informed traders like Sheikh about lead chromate's health risks. But by then it was too late: the turmeric was already being exported, making it a global issue.

This is Saim. He resides with his family in Mirzapur, Bangladesh. For over three years, they lived next to two illegal battery recycling factories. These factories released lead dust into the air, contaminating nearby neighborhoods.

By the time workers abandoned the factory in February 2019, over 200 children were poisoned.

I talked with Pure Earth’s executive director, Drew McCartor, to better understand this issue. 

As most people know, lead is a toxic heavy metal. It's a neurotoxin, so it has a whole host of negative impacts to the human body. The ones that we worry about the most are usually permanent brain damage of young children and effects to adults that increase their rates of cardiovascular disease. 

The human body does not need any amount of lead. There are certain metals that the body needs. Lead just is not one of them.

And it’s particularly problematic because our body thinks it looks very, very similar to calcium. 

This is Rachel Silverman from the Center for Global Development, she works on lead poisoning.

And calcium, of course, we need for all sorts of human functions, and especially neurological functions.

We estimate that about 800 million children around the world have blood levels that can be considered lead poisoning. It's a very large number.

So the World Bank just completed an assessment, an analysis of how many people die from lead exposure related heart disease, and they estimate that it's 5.5 million. To put that in comparison, that's more people than are estimated to die from AIDS or malaria or tuberculosis or natural disasters or automobile deaths or any of these other issues that more frequently make the front page of a newspaper than lead poisoning does.

It's not just health, it's economics too. Lead exposure costs some countries over 10 percent of their GDP.

Many adults, even in the west, still have high blood lead levels. While the issue isn't completely resolved here either, strict regulations and big investments have greatly reduced lead exposure.

At the height of the water crisis in Flint Michigan, where lead was found in drinking water, around 4% of children had lead poisoning, compared to about 3% in other wealthy countries. The situation was rightly deemed severe, but the current levels of lead poisoning in poorer countries are 10 times worse. Over half of all children in low and middle income countries have lead poisoning.

As an American, when we think of lead poisoning, we think of leaded gasoline, leaded paint and lead pipes. Those are not the main causes of lead poisoning around the world.

The biggest sources of lead really depend from country to country. But sources that often come up are contaminated soil from industrial activities, cookware like pots and pans both metallic and ceramic, toys, jewelry, cosmetics, traditional medicines and spices.

So for spices, globally, we took an assessment of lots of different types of spices from 25 countries and found that 2% of them kind of exceeded the relevant safety level for lead.

But if you zero in on particular locations that are known to be hot spots for adulterating spices with lead-based pigments, then that percentage goes way, way up, particularly if you isolate for a specific spice that's known to be a problem. 

There are cases of turmeric causing lead poisoning in children in Seattle and lead exceeding the maximum safety levels over a thousand times in New York City. 

So I wonder: Does lead-tainted turmeric reach me here in Belgium? 

I went to different kinds of stores to buy turmeric: known supermarkets like Aldi and Lidl, but also a smaller Moroccan store, an Asian store and an organic store. But in Aldi I could only find turmeric as part of a curry mix.

Now how do I test these? According to the internet, there are a few tests you can do at home. 

One I came across frequently was putting turmeric in water to see if the powder settles down all the way. If after about 20 minutes it does, then it’s pure. If it’s cloudy, it means it’s adulterated.

So let’s try it on our turmeric!

It looks pure to me but honestly I don’t know how to tell. I guess this one is darker because I used more. And I didn’t test the curry mix of course because I don’t know if that counts. But anyway, does this experiment really work?

This is a pretty rudimentary test. We have not validated the accuracy of that. So I can't tell you really if that works or not. But if it did, it would probably just be indicating whether this is adulterated and have extraordinary levels or no lead.

I couldn’t really find any evidence of this working either. But maybe it does, I don’t know.

There are home testing kits that change color when exposed to lead, but the compound in turmeric that causes its yellow color, curcumin, interferes with the results.

Then what does work?

The nice thing about the Stanford approach with Bangladesh was they used this new ray gun, a portable analyzer that could just point it out and with the proper software in it, you could tell if it had lead in it.

This is Kris Newby, she’s a medical science writer who wrote an article for Stanford on the discovery of lead in turmeric. A portable X-ray fluorescence analyzer or pXRF has a detection limit of about 2 parts per million, which is comparable to national food standards. 

An x-ray gun sounds really cool, so maybe I should use that. How much can it cost?

Well, that’s out of my budget. So, what else can I do?

In an academic setting or a laboratory setting, you would test it and you would put it through a mass spectrometer, which uses lasers to break anything you put in the way of the lasers into its molecular elements. And then sophisticated software creates a report and tells you what is in the turmeric. 

An inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer or ICP-MS has a detection limit of 0.001 parts per million. 

I traveled all the way to Roeselare to bring my turmeric to a laboratory that’s part of INAGRO, a research institute serving the agriculture sector in Belgium. 

The device places a sample in a chamber where hot plasma separates it into basic elements.

I gave them my samples and will now await the results.

After they discovered lead in turmeric, Stanford University and the Bangladeshi government launched a big campaign to inform manufacturers and consumers about the dangers.

The prime minister got on the television and said: we realize that lead poisoning in Bangladesh, which is a really serious problem, we need to get this tainted turmeric out. And we just wanna let you know, we're gonna start arresting people who taint turmeric.

A crackdown followed at the spice market with a bunch of policemen and public health officials. A Stanford-trained technician passed by each stall and used a portable X-ray fluorescence analyzer to test the turmeric.

And if there was lead in it, there was this grand show where they confiscated it and took it away and wrote fines immediately to the spice sellers who were tainting their turmeric. 

The percentage of mills adding lead chromate to turmeric decreased from 30% in 2019 to 0% 2021. Consequently, lead contamination in turmeric also decreased, from 47% to an incredible 0% two years later.

It was an amazing solution to a very difficult problem. 

Mohammad Abdullah Sheikh, following the crackdown on the use of lead chromate, turned a new leaf. Today, outside his mill, he proudly displays his turmeric – not as bright as before, but pure. He’s happy with this color. The sentiment is shared by many in Bangladesh.

Because Bangladesh is such an enormous country in terms of its population, this intervention likely impacted many tens of millions of people.

The intervention in Bangladesh shows that progress is possible. But it’s not the only example.

We borrowed a lot of the strategies from that intervention when we ran an intervention in the Republic of Georgia. The most recent analysis of spices in Georgia suggests that the problem is almost completely solved.

The largest source of lead throughout most of the 20th century was leaded gasoline. But after a successful global health campaign, Algeria became the final country to ban it in 2021.

In most high-income countries, the use of lead paint and lead pipes is either banned or strongly regulated. And where old pipes still exist, they add anti-corrosives to the water to stop lead contamination. As a result, lead poisoning levels plummeted. In the US alone, between 1978 and 2016, lead levels in children's blood decreased by 95%.

In countries where lead exposure is still high, we’re making progress too.  

Here's a map showing the percentage of tested paints with lead levels above 600 parts per million, far exceeding the recommended limit of 90 parts per million. Nonprofits like the Lead Exposure Elimination Project, or LEEP, work to address this. 

In the US, in Europe, our paint does not have lead in it anymore. It hasn’t for some time. There’s no reason lead needs to be in paint and groups like LEEP have been very successful in working with governments and paint manufacturers to phase leaded paint out. 

Madagascar, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe are now moving towards mandating lead-free paint. In Malawi and Pakistan, the regulation was there but now it’s finally being enforced.

LEEP’s future plans include researching lead in spices, continuing their mission to eliminate lead exposure globally.

So Pure Earth's mission is to prevent exposures to toxic chemicals. Right now we're totally focused on lead and mercury. We run a lot of programs that aim to understand the sources of exposure. So if we know that spices, for example, is a big cause of lead poisoning, we will design a spice specific intervention.

In May 2022, Pure Earth and the University of Dhaka's Department of Geology cleaned up the lead-contaminated areas near Saim and Shihab in Mirzapur, safeguarding 600 villagers and future generations. They're also partnering with the government to transform illegal recycling factories into safe, lawful operations..

We've done many, many dozens of these projects. They're very effective at reducing kids' levels of lead poisoning.

I bought turmeric from various stores and I'm going to test it for lead. Do you think some of my turmeric could contain lead?

I think the question of whether it contains lead and the question of whether it's been adulterated by lead are two different questions. So there have been some interesting consumer reports studies recently of say chocolate, and they found chocolate contains lead. But the reason it contains lead is just that it's grown in, I think in this case it was in Ghana, and Ghana has a fair amount of lead pollution in the soil, in the water, and so it's getting into the product. No one's trying to add it. But just as they’re growing it, as they’re processing it, it’s there.

But whether or not that's actually unsafe in a meaningful way and is going to hurt you, it would really depend what quantity you're eating. And for some foods, you would have to eat quite a lot.

For a lot of countries, the regulatory threshold is around two parts per million of lead in the spice. And if one of your samples has been adulterated with a lead-based pigment, it will probably have many hundreds or even many thousands or tens of thousands parts per million lead.

I would be very surprised if it exceeded the norms. I would be very surprised if you find heavy metal contamination specifically by lead. All materials entering the European market, more specifically the Belgian market, are heavily tested. Up to today, I don't think I've seen, maybe in a few cases, and then I can count on one hand, where we find that the limit has been exceeded. 

So I just got the results back from the laboratory! Let’s have a look.

I’ll show my results on screen for you to pause and look at, but essentially none of my turmeric exceeded 0.4 parts per million. Which is well under the legal limit and far below levels of adulteration.

So yeah, everyone was right, it doesn’t look like my turmeric got tampered with. At least not with lead. If you got yours at a regular supermarket it likely won’t be either.

Now what do I do with all of these?

So is consuming turmeric safe? It depends on where you live. Here in Belgium and other countries with strict safety regulations, I'm not really worried. And there are many who claim turmeric has great health benefits, so maybe we need to use more of it. But I’m not a health expert, so I suggest you do your own research or, better yet, ask an actual expert.

Thanks to the amazing work of the Stanford researchers and others, Bangladesh managed to essentially get rid of lead in turmeric within just 2 years. Organizations like Pure Earth, LEEP and the Center for Global Development ensure we keep making incredible progress.

I’m grateful for all the journalists whose reporting inspired this video, and everyone else in the fight against lead exposure, including those I have failed to mention.

For more insights on creating a happier world, subscribe and hit the bell to get notified when new videos come out. Suggestions are welcome in the comments. Thanks for watching and bon appétit!





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