Turmeric means “yellow” in Bengali: Lead chromate pigments added to turmeric threaten public health

Adulteration is a growing food safety concern worldwide. Previous studies have implicated turmeric as a source of lead (Pb) exposure due to the addition of lead chromate (PbCrO4), a yellow pigment used to enhance brightness.

We aimed to assess the practice of adding yellow pigments to turmeric and producer- consumer- and regulatory-factors affecting this practice across the supply chain in Bangladesh. We identified and visited the nine major turmeric-producing districts of Bangladesh as well as two districts with minimal turmeric production. In each district, we conducted semi-structured interviews and informal observations with individuals involved in the production, consumption, and regulation of turmeric. We explored perceptions of and preferences for turmeric quality. We collected samples of yellow pigments and turmeric from the most-frequented wholesale and retail markets. We collected samples of turmeric, pigments, dust, and soil from turmeric polishing mills to assess evidence of adulteration.

Interviews were analyzed through an inductive, thematic coding process, with attention focused on perceptions of and preferences for turmeric quality. Samples were analyzed for Pb and chromium (Cr) concentrations via inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry and x-ray fluorescence. In total, we interviewed 152 individuals from across the supply chain and collected 524 samples of turmeric, pigments, dust, and soil (Table S3, Table S4).

Turmeric Pb and Cr concentrations were highest in Dhaka and Munshiganj districts, with maximum turmeric powder Pb concentrations of 1152 μg/g, compared to 690 μg/g in the 9 major turmeric-producing districts. We found evidence of PbCrO4-based yellow pigment adulteration in 7 of the 9 major turmeric-producing districts. Soil samples from polishing mills contained a maximum of 4257 μg/g Pb and yellow pigments contained 2–10% Pb by weight with an average Pb:Cr molar ratio of 1.3.

Turmeric wholesalers reported that the practice of adding yellow pigments to dried turmeric root during polishing began more than 30 years ago and continues today, primarily driven by consumer preferences for colorful yellow curries.

Farmers stated that merchants are able to sell otherwise poor-quality roots and increase their profits by asking polishers to adulterate with yellow pigments. Adulterating turmeric with lead chromate poses significant risks to human health and development. The results from this study indicate that PbCrO4 is being added to turmeric by polishers, who are unaware of its neurotoxic effects, in order to satisfy wholesalers who are driven by consumer demand for yellow roots.

results are based on interviews with 152 individuals from across the supply chain and 524 samples of turmeric, pigments, dust, and soil (Table 1Table S3Table S4).

We recommend immediate intervention that engages turmeric producers and consumers to address this public health crisis and ensure a future with Pb-free turmeric.

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