MONTVILLE, NJ – Dr. Steven Marcus, Montville resident and the former director of the New Jersey Poison Control Center, spoke to residents in January about lead poisoning and its dangers. Lead poisoning can lead to blunted intelligence, problems at school, and reduced earning potential, he said. Brain damage from lead poisoning is irreversible, according to Marcus.

Marcus’ seminar at the Montville Township Public Library, entitled “My Last Tandoori Chicken,” focused on a 13-month-old child who was brought to his attention by a pediatrician. The child had been screened for lead as part of a routine exam and was asymptomatic for the normal signs of poisoning, yet the child’s levels were 57 mcg/dl when they should be zero, Marcus said.

The child was admitted to the hospital, where a blood test was re-administered. When the level was found to be 28 mcg/dl, the child was deemed “fine,” and discharged. Marcus redid the blood test and still found the level to be 57, because fingertip and vein levels are different, he said.

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The local health department couldn’t find any lead in the home, using visual inspections, a machine called an XRF machine that detects lead in the walls, and swipes of dust. The child’s pediatrician suggested testing the mother’s breast milk because the mother was nursing the child, but instead blood levels were conducted on the parents. Amazingly, the parents’ levels were even higher – the mother’s level was 87 and the father’s, 95. There was no history of home repairs, which would produce dust, or the use of ceramic pots.

Marcus sent an epidemiologist, which is a disease physician, to the home, to open every cabinet, every drawer, and check all spices and ethnic cosmetics.

Finally the problem was found in a bottle of spice the family had been cooking with: sindoor, a powdered dye which the epidemiologist said, “Just feels so heavy!” Also called vermilion, sindoor is 58% lead. Marcus reported the situation to the Centers for Disease Control, he said, and was interviewed on Indian radio.

Lead Poisoning

Marcus said that the problem of lead poisoning has been known for 5,000 years.

“People drank wine instead of water because they were afraid to drink water – it made them sick,” he said. Surprisingly, people ate and drank from lead items, and sweetened wine with lead.

Lead is commonly found in old paint in homes, but also in soil, water, ceramics, old toys, and even cosmetics. It can be found in some folk remedies such as ayurvedic medicine, Marcus said, and children can be exposed due to parents’ occupations, which might be brought home as dust on their clothing which a child could breathe in. Twenty-seven percent of homes in Morris County were built before 1950 and 35% in the entire state, which means they have a higher chance of lead contamination, he said.

“Most kids don’t eat paint chips,” Marcus said. “It’s the dust that’s the problem.”

Marcus also quoted a recent Consumer Reports study showing that common fruit juices had dangerous levels of lead even if just four ounces were consumed daily:

  • Trader Joe’s Fresh Pressed Apple Juice, 100% Juice
  • 365 Everyday Value (Whole Foods) Organic 100% Juice, Concord Grape
  • R.W. Knudsen Organic Just Concord Grape Juice
  • Welch’s 100% Grape Juice, Concord Grape
  • Welch’s 100% Grape Juice, White Grape
  • Great Value (Walmart) 100% Juice, Cranberry Grape
  • Welch’s 100% Juice with Antioxidant Superberry

Lead was also in fuel until it was banned in 1990, but that fuel and its fumes have gotten into the soil, and kids love to play in dirt – and eat it, because they tend to put their hands and fingers in their mouths, Marcus said. There is a still a lead smelting plant in Perth Amboy, he said.

Marcus is the author of “Medical Toxicology: Antidotes and Anecdotes,” which contains further details on this detective story and other puzzles Marcus has solved.

Marcus informed the audience that the phone number for the Poison Control Center is 800-222-1222, available 24 hours.

The Montville Township Public Library hosts many speakers, musicians and other programs. To see the complete schedule, click: calendar.

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