Folk Medicines Contain Lead

Monica Rhor, AP, January 22, 2008

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Dozens of adults and children have become gravely ill or died after taking lead-laden medicine over the past eight years, according to federal and local health officials.

The dangerous medicines are manufactured outside the United States and sold in the U.S. by folk healers known as curanderas and in ethnic grocery stores and neighborhood shops that offer herbs and charms. They are usually brought into the country by travelers in their suitcases, thereby slipping past government regulators.

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Lead is added to many of the concoctions because of its supposed curative properties, even though doctors say it has no proven medical benefits. In other cases, powders and pills become contaminated with lead from soil or through the manufacturing process.

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In Harris County, which includes Houston, traditional medicines are blamed for nearly one-fifth of all cases in which children were found to have high levels of lead. In Arizona, home remedies account for one-fourth of childhood lead poisoning cases.

In Texas, California and Arizona, lead poisoning has been traced to Mexican remedies such as greta, azarcon and rueda—powders that are given to treat constipation in children and contain as much as 90 percent lead. 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 such ills as foot fungus and body odor.

Dangerous amounts of lead have also been found in ayurvedic medicines, which are used in India and commonly found in South Asian immigrant communities in New York, Chicago and Houston. These medicines include ghasard, a brown powder given to relieve constipation in babies, and mahayogaraj gugullu, for high blood pressure.

Traditional medicines may account for up to 30 percent of all childhood lead poisoning cases in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates 240,000 U.S. children were diagnosed with high blood lead levels in 2004 to 2006.

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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.

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In Houston, where one in four residents is foreign-born, Health Department officials routinely pay undercover visits to herbalist stores and try to buy remedies known to contain lead. Often, however, storekeepers are reluctant to admit they carry the medicine, bringing them out only when they know the customer, Reyes said.

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In 2004, the CDC reported 12 cases of lead poisoning associated with ayurvedic remedies in Texas, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York and California. In one case, a 37-year-old woman, hospitalized with abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, reported taking five different traditional medications for rheumatoid arthritis.

Many state and local health departments have issued warnings about lead in folk medicines, and sometimes use questionnaires to screen youngsters in poor neighborhoods and immigrant communities for lead poisoning from folk remedies. The Food and Drug Administration has also issued alerts about certain medicines, including litargirio.

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