Researchers in Boston recently tested imported spices and food products in 15 Indian specialty stores and found a quarter of the samples contained more than 1 microgram of lead per gram, TIME reported yesterday.

The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, was conducted after the lead poisonings of Indian children were linked to Indian spices. The link prompted researchers at Children’s Hospital Boston and the Harvard School of Public Health to investigate whether lead in spices is a widespread problem.

In addition to finding lead in 25 percent of spices sampled, researchers found that, on average, imported spices contain double the amount of lead in U.S. spice brands.

Though most lead levels detected are well below the European Union’s acceptable threshold, the authors of the study believe the trace levels are concerning, as they could add to exposure from other neurotoxins.

The FDA has different thresholds for allowable levels of lead in food

products based on how often a product is likely to be used. Last

summer, the FDA updated its guidance on lead likely to be consumed by small children, significantly lowering the recommended maximum level.

The FDA does not have specific guidelines for screening lead in imported spices.

“We look at imports and we look for lead and other elements,” Ira Allen, a spokesperson for the agency told TIME. “But we do it on a targeted basis, and some of that basis is how the product is intended to be used.”

“We have extensive surveying of imported foods at major ports,” added Allen. “Obviously we can’t look at everything, but we do target inspection based on where the food comes from and what the history of the product is, and we do ban certain products.”

The regulation of imported spices is garnering increased scrutiny. Lead concerns come in the wake of an ongoing Salmonella outbreak tied to imported red and black pepper, which has sickened at least 249 people in 44 states and the District of Columbia.

The recalled pepper was imported from Vietnam, but it is unclear where in the supply chain the contamination occurred. The product was distributed in all 50 states and Canada and over 150 food products were recalled, including 1.4 million pounds of ready to eat meats.

  • Paul Farris

    I eat Indian food at least 2 times a week should I stop and should I beconcered about having high level of lead in my body. If so what should I do about it???????

  • Mr. Farris, I feel that you are very worried and hope that you make an appointment with a trusted health care professional who can discuss your concerns. Here is a website that offers some credible information about lead poisoning (
    My advice is the following, but please go talk to your doctor, who is licensed to understand much more.
    Even though we don’t really want lead building up in our body, it happens anyway and most of us probably show some amount of lead on a blood test. This is not ideal, but the FDA has decided that we can function with it in our body, as long as we can keep it as low as possible. It is super important for children because in them, the effects really show in their brain and how they develop, whereas in adults it is much more subtle.
    Additionally, there are other imported foods (not just India) that might be manufactured with high levels of lead, since resources (machinery and packaging materials), regulations, and traditions vary by country. I would probably begin with listening to you talk about what you eat, where you get it from, maybe ask you to bring in a package to figure out where it comes from? I think the question is if whatever you are eating is affecting your normal ability to function and screen for anything obvious. Once you know what your baseline is, you can monitor how it changes.
    To try and answer your questions.
    I wouldn’t be too concerned about toxic levels of lead in your body, but you should get it checked just to be sure. Try to determine whether the food you are making or eating is lead-free (spices that are made in the US, for example, are probably ok). If you can’t determine where the food came from (and not sure whether it has lead in it), it is best to limit it, just to be sure.
    Hope this helps. 🙂