Testing Spices for Lead with SciAps XRF

May 10, 2024

In August 2023, SciAps X-550 Pb was used in a unique lead study. Lead Exposure Elimination Project (LEEP), a non-profit, public charity that supports governments in implementing regulations and helps manufacturers shift to lead-free products, tested turmeric, chili, and pepper from Ethiopia for added lead. These spices are valued for their color, which is why some sellers add lead to the products.

“There are many ways someone might be exposed to lead. Even though lead-based petrol is no longer an issue, there are persisting sources that still cause lead poisoning on a staggering and widespread scale. At LEEP our main focus is lead paint, but we're beginning to look at other sources, such as spices and cosmetics. Beyond these, we’re aware that lead acid batteries, ceramic glazing, artisanal pottery, and aluminum cookware continue to cause exposure,” says Dr Bal Dhital, LEEP Program Manager and medical doctor.

“Lead poisoning is a condition that continues to affect one in three children around the world and it has staggering consequences, both on the health of the children that it affects in the long run, but also on the economic cost to countries that are suffering from lead exposure.”

Using SciAps X-550 Pb as a screening tool for lead-paint already had Bal’s attention, but it wasn’t until Bal had an opportunity to test spices that he contacted Tim Johnson, SciAps Business Development Manager, to discuss loaning the XRF for this unique study.

“Tim was really welcoming and friendly over the phone, and I had the sense that we were both fighting in the same corner of the lead exposure issue,” says Bal. “He kindly let us borrow the instrument for a couple months.”

People tend to add lead to spices for the same reason they add it to paint, which is for the color. For example, turmeric is a spice that is infamous for added lead because consumers tend to buy the spice based on the vivid yellow color.

In Ethiopia, Bal and his team purchased spices from different cities and towns in the country. “We collected just over 200 samples and scanned them with the XRF for added lead,” says Bal. “The current evidence suggests that the expected minimum total lead content in a spice adulterated with a lead pigment is 10 ppm. If it is lower than this it can still be hazardous, but is more likely to be due to incidental contamination.”

The X-550 Pb determined there was no lead added to the spices. Bal then sent a subset of 31 to Food Forensics Limited, an accredited lab in Norwich, United Kingdom, with inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS), which gives readings down to one part per trillion. The LEEP team found all 31 samples fell under that 5 parts per million range, which suggests that no lead was added to the samples tested. For the details, go to “Testing spices for lead content in Türkiye and Ethiopia.”

“There was a real benefit in having the SciAps XRF for a quick turnaround response for studies like this one. I sent half the samples back to the UK before I finished purchasing them in Ethiopia, then someone in the office scanned them all and told me they were all non-detected. That informed how I purchased the rest of the spices and allowed me to broaden the scope of what I was looking for. There is a lot of utility in having that quick turnaround answer,” says Bal.

“Also, it was really exciting to use the X-550. We've been talking about using an XRF for some time now, but using the SciAps device felt like something futuristic, some sort of sci-fi, Men in Black style gadget.”

The LEEP team also sees the handheld XRF’s benefit for their primary mission to eliminate lead poisoning across the globe with their lead-paint testing. “Being able to test paint in person at the manufacturing site or from a paint can bought at the store, without having to send it to a lab, would be invaluable,” says Bal. “The experience we had with SciAps and certainly with Tim was fantastic. The XRF seems to be a great screening tool that can cost significantly less than other laboratory devices such as ICP-AES”

New to the SciAps X-series is the SciAps X-550 Enviro/HUD analyzer, the best option for operators who want to perform soil testing, RoHS, or other environmental testing for EPA Priority Pollutant and RCRA metals as well as residential or commercial lead paint assessments.

Dr Bal Dhital, Program Manager. Bal leads LEEP’s work in Uzbekistan, Zimbabwe, and Sierra Leone. He is a medical doctor, and has previously worked in hospital medicine in rural and metropolitan Australia.
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