City bans eye makeup after lead found in tots

September 09, 2006|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Sun reporter

The Baltimore health commissioner ordered a ban yesterday on sales in the city of several brands of an eye cosmetic popular in parts of Asia, after two toddlers whose parents applied the product suffered significant lead poisoning.

Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein said he asked the owner of one city specialty market to remove from its shelves several types of kohl eye makeup, marketed as Kajal, Al-Kahl and Surma.

A citywide ban could go into effect as early as Monday, he said. Violators could be fined up to $1,000 for each offense.

The city health commissioner acted after the state Department of the Environment found that two tubes of one brand sold in Maryland, "Hashmi Surma Special," contained 39 percent and 45 percent lead, respectively.

According to state officials, the higher figure is 750 times the current national limit for lead in paint. These levels, Sharfstein said, represent "just a huge amount of lead."

While investigating the lead poisoning of a Baltimore County boy and a girl in Silver Spring, state environmental officials discovered that both were poisoned by kohl products made in Pakistan. Both are between 2 and 4 years of age.

One of the families bought the makeup at a Baltimore market, officials said. The other family couldn't recall where they purchased it.

Horacio Tablada, waste management director of the state environment agency, said there are probably several markets in the state selling these lead-containing cosmetics, which is also sometimes used as a teething powder for infants.

Jonas A. Jacobson, deputy secretary of the environment, said the matter has been referred to the consumer protection division of the state Attorney General's office for further investigation.

Kohl is used as a cosmetic worldwide. But it is particularly popular in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, where it is widely used as a cosmetic by children and men. According to an article in the Aug. 1991 Environmental Health Perspectives. lead levels in foreign-manufactured kohl varied from 0.6 percent to over 50 percent.

The label on the Hasmi Surma Special tubes claimed that the powder protects children's eyesight.

At very high doses, lead can cause death from brain swelling. In lower doses, Sharfstein said, it can impair cognitive function, cause hyperactivity and learning disabilities.

Both children were found to have blood levels above 20 micrograms per deciliter, the threshold at which cognitive problems may result, state officials said.

Most cases of lead poisoning result when children swallow the lead paint dust or flakes found in some older homes.

Tablada said investigators couldn't find any environmental cause of the Baltimore County and Silver Spring cases.

An investigator noticed, though, a black substance around the eye of one of the toddlers. That led to the kohl products and the market in northern Baltimore. Sharfstein declined to name the market, saying that the owner had cooperated by immediately removing the products.

Similar cases elsewhere have already led the federal Food and Drug Administration to impose a nationwide ban on products containing kohl, Sharfstein said.

douglas.birch@baltsun.com

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