Health departments around the U.S. say traditional medicines used by immigrants from Latin America, India and other parts of Asia are the second most common source of lead poisoning in the country, surpassed only by lead paint. In fact, these medicines may account for tens of thousands of cases of lead poisoning in children each year, according to an AP investigation.
Dozens of adults and children have become gravely ill or died during the past eight years after taking these dangerous medicines, which are manufactured outside the country and often sold here by folk healers and in ethnic grocery stores.
Lead is added to many of the remedies because of its supposed curative properties. In other cases, it’s simply a matter of powders and pills becoming contaminated with lead during the manufacturing process.
Doctors say the lead has no proven medical benefits whatsoever.
In Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, traditional medicines are responsible for nearly 20% of all cases in which children were found to have high levels of lead. In Arizona, the rate is 25%.
Children’s lead poisoning in Texas, California and Arizona has been traced to Mexican remedies such as greta, azarcon and rueda, powders that contain 90% lead and are used to treat constipation in children.
In New York City and Rhode Island, high lead levels in the blood have been tied to litargirio, a powder containing up to 79 percent lead. It is used by Dominican immigrants for foot fungus and body odor.
In New York, Chicago and Houston, dangerous amounts of lead have also been found in ayurvedic medicines, which are used in India and commonly found in South Asian immigrant communities. These medicines include ghasard, a brown powder given to relieve constipation in babies, and mahayogaraj gugullu, to treat high blood pressure.
“No one’s testing these medications,” said Dr. Stefanos Kales, an assistant professor of environmental health at the Harvard School of Public Health who researched the problem, to the AP. “There’s no guarantee it doesn’t have dangerous levels of lead.”
A woman named Maria said she took her grandmother’s advice and gave her two daughters and a niece a dose of a bright orange powder called “greta”, a Mexican folk medicine used to treat stomach aches in children. She had no idea that greta was 90% lead.
“Instead of doing something good for them, I did them more harm,” said Maria, who requested her last name not be used. “I was so afraid of all the things that could happen to them. It was a terrible experience.”
Fortunately, doctors detected the dangerously high lead levels in the little girls’ blood during a routine checkup a week later. The children have shown no ill effects.
According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics, folk medicines account for up to 30 percent of all childhood lead poisoning cases in the United States. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates 240,000 U.S. children were diagnosed with high blood lead levels in 2004 to 2006.
“I don’t think anyone has a good handle on the exact prevalence of use,” Kales said. “I’m sure it’s underreported because doctors don’t generally ask about this and patients don’t report it.”
Only 14 percent of children are tested for lead nationwide. Many more cases are almost certainly going unreported. Often, the source of lead cannot be traced in cases where paint is not the underlying cause.
The use of folk medicine is rooted in generations-old cultural traditions. Ayurvedic medicine, for example, originated more than 2,000 years ago in India, where 80 percent of the population uses it.
“People think, well, my grandmother did it, so it’s not a problem. It’s extremely hard to change cultures and beliefs,” Brenda Reyes with the Houston Health Department told AP.
In Houston, where a quarter of residents are foreign-born, Health Department officials routinely pay undercover visits to herbalist stores and try to buy remedies known to contain lead. However, storekeepers often don’t admit they carry the medicine unless they personally know the customer, Reyes said.
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