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Sindoor (Vermillion) used by married women in India could contain dangerous levels of lead, research says

In the study, 80% of the sindoor (vermillion) sample contained lead.
Written by: India TV Lifestyle Desk New Delhi August 31, 2017 15:56 IST
India TV Lifestyle Desk

Sindoor has been a crucial part of every married Indian woman’s life in India. In traditional Hindu households, one couldn't’t imagine a married Indian woman without vermillion adorned on her forehead. The red-coloured powder has been such an integrated part of our culture that we’ve missed out to look at the potential health impacts of the same. However, the powder is totally harmless, but some manufacturers use lead tetraoxide to add a distinctive red colour to the powder. 

118 sindoor samples were collected for the study, out of which 95 were from South Asian stores in New Jersey. Another 23 came from Mumbai and New Delhi stores in India. Overall, about 80% of samples had some amounts of lead. About a third of them contained levels above the limit set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 

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“We are diverse here with a lot of individuals who emigrate or travel from many parts of the world through airports on a weekly basis,” said study author Dr. Derek Shendell of Rutgers School of Public Health in Piscataway, New Jersey, told Reuters Health by phone.

“If there is a product that could be contaminated with lead, it’s of public health interest. There’s possibility of spread through ingestion or inhalation.”

Shendell’s team discovered that 83% of the U.S samples while 78% of Indian samples contained at least 1 microgram of lead per gram of powder. 

“There is no safe level of lead,” Shendell said. “It shouldn’t be in our bodies, especially for children under age 6.”

“Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns. “And effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected. The most important step . . . is to prevent lead exposure before it occurs.”

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The FDA has regulated the amount of lead in cosmetics to 20 micrograms per gram. 19% of the US samples and 43% of the Indian samples exceed the limit. 5 samples, out of which 3 were from the US and 2 from India, contained more than 10,000 micrograms of lead in them. 

FDA issued general warnings of using sindoor after a test was conducted by Illinois Department of Health in 2007, which found high levels of lead in sindoor. Researchers need to study the lead levels in sindoor and make public aware about its health hazards. 

“Just as we screen kids who live in houses built prior to 1978 with lead-based paint, we should screen children who use sindoor cosmetically,” study author Dr. Bill Halperin of the Rutgers School of Public Health campus in Newark told Reuters Health by phone.

Since different brands of sindoor had variable levels of lead, it is difficult to say which sindoor products have dangerous levels of lead. 

“That puts the burden on the consumer,” Halperin said. “For parents who want to make decisions to benefit their children, it could be a gamble.”

“It’s disappointing that we’re still finding products with so much lead,” Dr. Cristiana Lin of Pediatrix Medical Group in Scottsdale, Arizona, who wasn’t involved in the current study, told Reuters Health by phone. “But we can spend time with our patients and ask questions.”

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“At the end of the day, you can’t assume people’s country of origin or practices, so you open up the conversation,” she said. “We have to respect families and encourage them to stay in their belief systems but also support them.”

Also, she said, “We need companies to be cognizant of this issue and become partners in creating lead-free products. Consumers should be able to make informed choices for themselves and protect their families.”

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