The San Joaquin County Public Health Services Department is warning that using surma, kohl and kajal around the eyes can lead to lead poisoning and cause brain damage in young children.
According to the health department, using these eye makeup products is a cultural practice in many countries in South and Central Asia, Africa and the Middle East. These products are believed to protect the eyesight and vision, make the eyes more beautiful, or ward off the "evil eye," the department says.
The health department is currently following 44 cases in San Joaquin County; of these, 14, or 31 percent, are related to the use of surma. Most of these 14 cases are from families originating from Pakistan.
"We now know there is no safe level of lead exposure in children," Gale Heinrich, coordinator of San Joaquin County's Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, said in a press release issued Monday. "Even low levels of exposure cause lead to accumulate in the blood and can cause lifelong learning and behavioral problems."
Lead is a toxic heavy metal that can result in serious and permanent damage to the brain, nervous system and kidneys, causing learning and behavior problems and anemia. The most common ways for children to become poisoned are through ingestion or inhalation of lead-contaminated products, according to Dr. Judy Cook, San Joaquin County Public Health Services Children's Medical Services director.
Surma, kohl and kajal are sometimes applied to the eyes of infants and young children for cosmetic purposes. Children become poisoned when they put their hands in their mouth after touching their eyes.
"Lead is especially dangerous to young children," Heinrich said. "The symptoms aren't usually obvious when the exposure occurs and are sometimes confused with common childhood complaints such as stomach aches, crankiness, headaches or loss of appetite."
Commercial preparations of surma, kohl and kajal may contain more than 70 percent lead. Surma associated with a case in San Joaquin County last year was analyzed and found to be made up of 74 percent lead.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has banned surma, kohl and kajal from import into the United States, but these products still make their way into the country in the suitcases of travelers or by illegal import and distribution to retailers, according to the health department.
San Joaquin County's Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program recommends that all children under the age of 6 be tested for lead exposure. Heinrich also advises parents to ask their health care providers specifically for the simple blood test.
Parents whose children have been exposed to surma, kohl or kajal should contact their physician about getting a blood lead test as soon as possible. The earlier high lead levels are detected, the more successfully they can be treated and lowered, Heinrich said.
For more information about lead or lead testing, contact Heinrich at 209-468-2593.