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Kohl, Kajal, Surma Can Cause Brain Damage in Kids

India West, News Report, Sunita Sohrabji Posted: Jan 15, 2009

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Using kohl, kajal and surma on the eyes of young children may cause brain damage, warns the Alameda County Lead Poisoning Prevention Program in California.

Even low-level exposure to lead can cause behavioral problems in children, said the ACLPPP in a new initiative designed to warn South Asian Americans about lead exposure through such traditional eyeliners.

Lead is a toxic metal that damages the brain, nervous system and kidneys, and can lead to learning and behavior problems in young children, as well as anemia. Children are at special risk because they may put hands in their mouths after touching their eyes. Inhalation and ingestion are the most common ways for children to be exposed to lead.

Kohl, kajal and surma are often applied to the eyes of infants and young children as a coolant and from local beliefs that they protect the eyesight and vision. Babies and children also occasionally get dots on the forehead, the nape of the neck, or under the ear to ward off the evil eye.

Lead poisoning affects the body over time, Julie Kurko, health services manager at the ACLPPP, told India-West. The symptoms arent obvious when the exposure occurs, said Kurko, who is also a public health nurse.

Traditional Indian eyeliner is made at home from sandalwood paste or the leaves of a local tree. Women also use the soot from a lit match to line their eyes. Both these traditional preparations are relatively harmless.

But commercial preparations are less benign, and may contain more than 84 percent lead. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has banned kohl, kajal and surma from import into the country, but they still gets through, often in the suitcases of travelers.

Of the 60 lead exposure cases Kurko is handling this year, four are related to the use of kohl, kajal and surma.

Dr. Veena Puri, a pediatrician with the Puri Pediatric Medical Group in Fremont, Calif., told India-West that lead exposure can present itself in a variety of ways in young children. The earliest symptom of exposure is anemia, said Puri, adding that lead exposure often reduces appetite, which increases the risk of anemia.

Children exposed to lead will also present symptoms of Pica, an eating disorder in which children crave mud, dirt or clay-like substances, and may eat paint chips, which also contain lead. Puri said she saw a lot of children with Pica when she practiced in Delhi, and in an inner-city facility in New York.

More common are attention deficit disorder-type symptoms, including marked irritability and an inability to concentrate, Puri told India-West.

And, unless all applicators are sterile, children also run the risk of a bacterial eye infection, known as trachoma. Puri advises all her new parents not to use the eyeliners.

The ACLPPP recommends that all children under the age of six be tested for lead exposure. Kurko also advises parents to specifically ask their healthcare providers for the simple blood test. We urge parents to be pro-active because many doctors dont know about the cultural sources of lead, she said.

Julie Twichell, education and outreach manager with the ACLPPP, told India-West that adequate nutrition also plays a role. If a child has good nutrition, theres less chance that lead will be absorbed, she said, adding that children who are anemic are more susceptible to poisoning. Frequent handwashing is also a good preventive measure, she said.

More information can be obtained at www.aclppp.org or www.stoppinglead.org.

The New York City Department of Health launched a similar initiative last year and warns against the widely-distributed brand Hashmi.

Related Articles:

California Toy Testing Events Protect Kids from Lead

Immigrant Children at Greater Risk of Lead Poisoning

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