WASHINGTON — Sindoor, a red powder widely used in Hindu religious ceremonies, may contain unsafe levels of lead that is associated with lower IQ and growth delays in children, a study of samples from India and the U.S. has found.
Researchers from the New Jersey-based Rutgers University have reported that 83 percent of the samples collected from the U.S. and 78 percent collected from India had at least 1.0 microgram of lead per gram of the cosmetic powder.
Meanwhile, 19 percent of the samples collected in New Jersey, and 43 percent of the samples collected from India, exceeded the 20-microgram of lead per gram of cosmetic powder limit imposed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“There is no safe level of lead. That’s why we believe sindoor powder shouldn’t be sold or brought into the U.S. unless it is lead free,” said Derek Shendell, associate professor at Rutgers University.
Researchers tested 118 samples of sindoor, a scarlet-colored powder that is used by women to place a bindi, or red dot, cosmetically on their foreheads.
Married women also put it in their hair parting and it is used by men and children for religious purposes.
The results indicated that about one-third of the samples, which included 95 samples from Indian American and other South Asian stores in New Jersey, and 23 from stores in Mumbai and New Delhi in India, contained lead levels above the limit set by the FDA.
“Sindoor and kajal are well known to contain lead and other heavy metals with risk of kidney, hepatic, skin disorders. Risk of heavy metals on skin leads to DNA damage, Kertaodermas and skin ulceration, nail and teeth changes,” said Dr. Nitin S. Walia, senior dermatology consultant at BLK Super Specialty Hospital.
“Problem is throughout Asia, especially India, Pakistan, Middle East, SE Asia. Poor quality cosmetics (contain) lead, mercury, chromium, cadmium, zinc,” said Walia, who was not a part of the research team.
Although other cosmetics such as kajal and tiro, eye products used in India and Nigeria, have been banned by the FDA because of the elevated lead content, the FDA only issued a general warning about sindoor after a testing by the Illinois Department of Health a decade ago discovered a high lead content in one brand.
Researchers said at a minimum there was a need to monitor the lead levels in sindoor and make the public aware of the potential hazards.
“We screen kids who live in houses built prior to 1978 with lead-based paint,” said William Halperin, professor at Rutgers University.
“We should be screening children from the South Asian community to make sure they do not have elevated levels of lead in their blood, before we discover more dead brain cells,” Halperin said.
The researchers are concerned about the amount of sindoor potentially entering the country on a weekly basis through the four international airports in the New York and New Jersey metropolitan area, including Philadelphia.
Halperin said he took a trip to India, brought back sindoor and was not stopped by U.S. Customs or told that the product might be hazardous.
Researchers said that the government should look at this as a public health issue and not rely on consumers to make the right choices.
It is difficult to determine exactly which products contain lead based on the variety of sindoor available and because the number of products which contained lead in this study is high.
The study was published in the Journal of Public Health.