Over the past weekend, a heartland newspaper shared with its readers the stunning conclusion of its local health department.

What was disclosed was that contaminated spices were determined to be the second largest cause of lead poisoning in children in 2021 in Nebraska’s most populous county.

The Douglas County Health Department study was first reported by Nebraska’s largest newspaper, the Omaha World-Herald.

Consumer Reports Director of Food Policy Brian Ronholm reacted to the Douglas County findings.

“It really underscores the seriousness of the problem and the need for the FDA to act in setting strict explicit limits,” Ronholm told Food Safety News. “The need for tighter regulations is urgent, especially when you consider that spices are consumed almost daily and the potential long-term effects heavy metal exposure has on children.”

Ronholm is the former Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Consumer Reports has led among public health advocates who’ve asked the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to establish limits on heavy metals in food. No limits exist currently and there is no sign of any action from the FDA

As for spices rising to the top of the poison list in Douglas County, health officials say tests of families who escaped from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan show the children have high lead levels.

Naudia McCracken, the supervisor of the Douglas County Health Department’s lead-poisoning prevention program, says those high lead levels were traced back to food, specifically lead-contaminated spices.

With no regulatory standards for herbs and spices, McCracken said it’s possible for anyone to ingest too much lead in their meals.

The Afghan families likely purchased spices in ethnic groceries. Immigrants from many areas of the world also use spices more heavily in their cooking than is typical in the United States.

But Consumer Reports found that brand-name herbs and spices might contain arsenic, cadmium, and lead. The nation’s top consumer organization in 2021 tested 126 such products from McCormick, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and other popular brands, finding almost one-third had heavy metal levels high enough to raise health concerns.

Levels of lead were so high in 31 products that they exceeded the maximum amount anyone should have in a day, according to Consumer Reports experts. In late 2022, Consumer Reports testing found heavy metals in chocolate from Hershey’s, Theo, Trader Joe’s, and other well-known brands.

Lead poisoning of children in Nebraska’s Douglas County and elsewhere continues to primarily be lead paint, from either chips or dust. In 2021, 69 percent of the children in the county who tested with high lead levels ingested paint from either paint chips or dust.

Chemistry students involved in the Douglas County study found the highest lead levels in thyme and basil. Lead was found in every spice tested including organic brands and those sold by grocery and specialty stores.

All spices tested contained some level of lead, including turmeric, basil, ginger, thyme, curry powder, and turmeric and ginger root supplements.

The Douglas County Health Department acknowledges that its student testing did not occur in a certified laboratory, but each sample was subjected to review by three sets of students.

Children younger than 7 years of age are most susceptible to lead poisoning because their neurological systems are not fully developed. Lead can impair intellectual development and contribute to behavioral issues. For adults, lead can increase blood pressure, cause hearing loss and add to gastrointestinal distress.

The American Spice Trade Association told the Omaha World-Herald that it favors the FDA setting limits on heavy metals in species. The European Commission has established limits for the spice trade in the Europen Union and the World Health Organization reportedly is considering the issue.

McCracken says explicit limits set by the FDA are needed. In 2021, 19 percent of the children who tested high for lead in Douglas County likely got it from spices. And 25 percent of those were immigrant children.

The student testing was done by a University of Nebraska Omaha chemistry class. It is the only systematic study of spices sold in the Omaha area.

Douglas County, which was incorporated in 1854, is a  major metropolitan area along the Missouri River, with Omaha as its largest city. It is a  major center for the insurance and telemarketing industries with a population approaching 600,000.

In the past, Omaha was known for smelting, which is the process of applying heat to an ore in order to extract a base metal. It is used to extract many metals from their ores, including lead. Smelting is sometimes blamed by Omaha property owners for the higher-than-normal lead levels in the area’s soils.

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