Getting the Lead Out – Folk & Herbal Remedies

Healthy living often includes considering natural or herbal remedies for getting and/or staying well.  I’ve blogged before about how I have been growing and drying my own herbs for use in teas, tinctures, salves and other applications. However, several commonly used traditional and folk remedies have been found to contain lead.  Some are contaminated with lead from the manufacturing process or soils.  Some are made of lead or lead salts.  For example, greta is a traditional Mexican folk remedy commonly used to treat children’s stomach ailments.  But, greta can contain as much as 90% lead, and can poison children, instead of making them better.

Reports of children being poisoned by folk remedies are more common then you would think.  One story expressed a young mother’s grief and guilt over poisoning her two children and a niece with greta.  She gave it to them to help with stomach problems.  She is quoted as saying “[i]nstead of doing something good for them, I did them more harm.”  Luckily, the high levels of lead were detected a week later during a routine checkup.  The children have reportedly suffered no ill effects.

Traditional and folk remedies are the second most common source of lead poisoning in the United States.  The CDC estimates that traditional or folk remedies may account for as much as 30% of all childhood lead poisoning cases in the US.  But, it is suspected that many cases go undetected.  Many doctors don’t ask about alternative medicines, and most people don’t volunteer the information.  And only about 14% of children are tested for lead.

Many of these remedies are manufactured outside the US and purchased in ethnic grocery stores and neighborhood shops, or brought into the US by travelers.  These remedies are often cultural traditions, handed down by generations.  For example, ayurvedic remedies have been used in India for at least the last 2,000 years.  But, one survey of ayurvedic remedies sold in the Boston area found that 20% of them contained potentially harmful levels of lead, mercury and arsenic.

Many people think “my grandmother used it, so it must be okay.”  Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it safe.  The traditional or home remedies can cause serious cases of lead poisoning because the lead concentration is often very high and the medicine is intentionally swallowed.

So, since you can’t tell just by looking at a folk or herbal remedy whether it contains lead or another potentially harmful ingredient, do a little bit of research before taking a folk or herbal remedy. Following is a list of common herbal or folk remedies that have been found to contain harmful ingredients – but this list isn’t comprehensive.



Alternative or Folk Remedies and Cosmetics Found to Have Lead Present






Used to Treat





Al Murrah Colic, stomachache, diarrhea Saudi Arabia
Albayalde or albayaidle Vomiting, colic, apathy, lethargy Mexico,Central America
Alkohl (also known as kohl, surma or saoott) Umbilical stump remedy (also used as a cosmetic) Middle East,Africa,Asia Can contain up to 83% lead
An Kung Niu Huan Wan China
Anzroot Gastroenteritis Middle East
Ayurvedic remedies including Guglu (reports of 14,000 ppm lead), Sundari Kalp (pill, reports of up to 96,000 ppm lead), and Jambrulin (reports of 44,000 ppm lead)[iii] India
Azarcon (also known as rueda, liga, coral, Alarcon and Maria Luisa) Empacho, vomiting, diarrhea 95% lead
Ba Bow Sen (also known as Ba Baw San or Ba Baw Sen) Colic, hyperactivity, nightmares and to detoxify “fetus poisoning” China
Bal Chamcha Liver problems, digestion, teething, milk intolerance, irregular stools, bloating, colic, poor sleep, poor dentition, myalgia India
Bal Jivan Baby tonic India
Bala Goli (also known as Fita) Stomachache, often dissolved in gripe water Asia,India
Bala Guta Children’s tonic India
Bala Sogathi Improve growth, teething, coug, cold, fever, diarrhea India
Balguti Kesaria For children and infants India
Bao Ning Dan Acne, pain, removing toxins China
Bezoar Sedative Pills China
Bint al zahab (also known as  bint or bent) Diarrhea, colic, constipation and general neonatal uses Saudi Arabia,OmanandIndia
Bint Dahab Saudi Arabia
Bokhoor (and noqd) Calming Kuwait
Cebagin Teething powder Middle East
Chuifong tokuwan Hong Kong
Cordyceps Hypertension, diabetes, bleeding China
Deshi Dewa Fertility Asia,India
Emperor’s Tea Pill Maintain body’s natural balance China
Farouk Teething powder Saudi Arabia
Ghazard (also known as Ghasard or Qhasard) Digestion, relieve constipation in babies Asia,India
Greta Digestive problems Mexico 97% lead
Hai Ge Fen China Powder added to tea
Hepatico Extract Healthy liver and promote regularity China
Jeu Wo Dan Cast dressing China
Jim Bu Huan Pain China
Kandu Stomachache Asian,India Red powder
Koo Sar (or Koo Soo) Pills Menstrual cramps China Lead believed to be present in red dye
Kohl (also known as Alkohl) Cosmetic, skin infections
Kushta Diseases of the heart, brain, liver, and stomach, aphrodisiac India,Pakistan
Litargirio Deodorant, foot fungicide, burns, wound healing Dominican Republic Approx. 80% lead
Lu Shen Wan China
Mahayogaraj gugullu High blood pressure India
Mahalakshmi Vilas Ras with gold Cold related symptoms, blood deficiency, wound healing, asthma India
Navratna Rasa General debility, rickets, calcium deficiency India
Ng Chung Brand Tik Dak Win China
Pay-loo-ah Rash, fever Southeast Asia
PoYing Tan Minor ailments China
Qing Fen Cast dressing, pain China
Santrinj Teething remedy Saudi Arabia 98% lead
Sundari Kalp Menstrual health India
Surma Teething powder India
Swarna Mahayograj Guggula with gold Rheumatism, gas, menstrual cycles, progesterone deficiency, mental disorders, fertility, menopause India
Tibetan herbal vitamin Strengthen brain (remedy for mental retardation) India
White Peony Scar Repairing Pills Scar Hong Kong
Zhui Feng Tou Gu Wan Bone ailments, joint pain, numbness China


Lead in Folk Remedies:  Smart Mama’s Simple Steps To Reduce Exposure

Skip the remedy.  If you don’t know whether it is safe or no, skip the remedy.  I understand that many of these remedies have been used for generations.  But, they can contain high levels of lead.  If you don’t know whether they are safe or not, then skip them.

Discuss with caregivers.  Discuss medications and remedies with all caregivers, including remedies.  Make sure your caregivers, including your relatives, do not provide any medical care, including home remedies, without checking with you.

Cleaning up indoor air quality – VOCs & paint

Indoor air quality is important to our health and wellbeing. Studies have shown that concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are consistently higher indoors than outdoors, with some VOC concentrations up to 10 times higher indoors. Some scientists believe that indoor pollutants are 1,000 times more likely to be inhaled as compared to outdoor pollutants because we spend about 90% of our time indoors, our activities put us near sources of indoor air pollutants, and indoor emissions are partially trapped inside buildings.

Household cleaners, scented products, and paints and coatings contribute to indoor air pollution.  Although emissions from paints and coatings are highest during and immediately after application, they release low levels of toxic emissions into the air for years after application.  Some paint-related activities can dramatically increase indoor air concentrations of VOCs.  A basic science lesson:  a paint consists of a resin (or binder), a carrier, and pigments that gives the paint its color.  Once the paint is applied to a surface, the carrier evaporates, leaving behind the solid coating.  The carrier is usually a VOC.

VOCs are chemicals that contain at least one carbon atom and that easily evaporate at ambient temperature.  VOCs are emitted as gases from certain liquids and solids.  In other words, VOCs readily volatilize, or evaporate, out of the solid or liquid into the air we breathe.  You are familiar with VOCs.  The smell of gasoline?  VOCs evaporating.  The scent of a freshly mowed lawn?  VOCs evaporating. In fact, isoprene and monoterpenes are two of the most common VOCs emitted from vegetation. Monoterpenes (VOCs) give us pine, lemon, and many floral scents.

The term “VOC” is often used in a precise regulatory context, and the definition is defined by laws.  From a regulatory perspective, VOCs are usually of concern because they evaporate at room temperature and then react in sunlight to help form ground-level ozone, an integral component of photochemical smog.  These VOCs are referred to as smog precursors.  Smog is that green haze that hangs over many large cities, and that we are working to eliminate.

But you are probably more concerned with VOCs because they have health effects.  VOCs can cause respiratory distress; skin and eye irritation; headaches; nausea; muscle weakness; and even more serious ailments and diseases.  For example, formaldehyde, a VOC often found in the home because of its presence in engineered wood products, including furniture, cabinetry and building materials, is considered a probable carcinogen by the EPA, is listed on California’s Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer, is genotoxic (damaging to genetic material), and also causes eye, nose and throat irritation.

When it comes to trying to reduce toxic chemical exposures, understanding the regulatory framework is important for any class of products.  For example, if you buy a paint labeled “low VOC”, you are usually buying a paint that has low VOC content based upon the definition of VOC under the federal Clean Air Act.  In this context, VOCs are defined in terms of photochemical reactivity (ability to form ozone), and not toxicity.  In the regulatory context, certain VOCs are exempt from regulation because they are not photochemically reactive (they are not smog pre-cursors).  However, these VOCs may be toxic.  For example, methylene chloride and 1,1,1-trichloroethane are not considered photochemically reactive, so they are exempt.  But they are associated with adverse health effects.

Methylene chloride is irritating to the skin, eyes and respiratory tract and is identified as a probable carcinogen by the EPA. 1,1,1-trichloroethane is not classifiable as to its carcinogencity in humans.  However, animal studies have shown that 1,1,1-TCAcan pass through the placenta.  Babies of pregnant mice exposed to high concentrations ofTCAdeveloped more slowly and demonstrated behavioral problems. So, even if the paint is low-VOC, you may still want to skip it.  Plus, the amount of VOCs is the amount in the base coating.  The colorant added to the paint may have VOCs, so you need to consider the VOC content of the base plus colorant.

How do you find the right paint?  Conventional paints are generally classified into two categories:  latex (or water based) paints (in which the carrier is water), and oil based paints (in which the carrier is an organic solvent).  When you use oil based paints, the carrier, an organic solvent VOC, evaporates after application and pollutes the air.  Latex paints do not use solvents as the primary carrier so VOC emissions are minimized.  So latex paints are usually a better choice over oil based paints to reduce toxic chemical exposures.  However, latex paints may use solvents to emulsify the binder, which are emitted after application, so they may still be problematic.

Paints labeled as “low VOCs” or “zero VOCs” may have fewer toxins present than conventional paints.  However, remember the earlier discussion about regulatory context?  The low or zero VOC paint is designated as such designed for photochemical reactivity (whether or not it is a smog precursor) and/or odor, not the amount of toxins.  The assumption that paints labeled as odor-free or containing low or no VOC’s are free of toxicants is false. While these paints are environmentally friendly, and I am all for reducing smog, they may still have some toxic chemicals present.  Look for the VOC content in grams per liter on the paint label – choose one with the lowest number.  Generally speaking, and keeping in mind that VOC content is regulated for smog formation potential, not health effects, a paint that says “Maximum VOC Content:  45 grams/liter” is preferable to one with a higher number.

Also, there are several specific private certifying companies that consider toxicity as well as simply regulatory VOC content limits. More on these in a separate blog post.

In addition to VOCs, you should look out for other potentially toxic ingredients, such as ammonia, crystalline silica, fungicides, and biocides.  Biocides include copper, arsenic disulfide, phenol, and formaldehyde.  Almost all paints contain toxic preservatives.  The amounts are relatively low, but you may want to consider biocide-free paints.  Also check the pigment used to make the color.  For both the paint and the pigment, ask the manufacturer or supplier for the MSDS (or get it off the web), which should identify the ingredients and have a section on health effects.

Another option is natural based paints and finishes.  These paints are made from natural raw ingredients such as plant oils, plant dyes, clay, chalk, milk casein, and bees’ wax.  Natural paints typically use linseed and soy oils as binders, pine- and balsam-derived terpenes or citrus oils as carriers, minerals and sometimes plant-derived compounds as pigments, and lime and chalk as thickeners.  These paints are preserved by linseed oil or other natural ingredients.  Although natural paints and finishes do not contain petroleum products, they may still emit VOCs from ingredients like citrus based solvents.  Some of these contain essential oils which can cause allergic reactions.  Certain natural oil paints emit odors or compounds, such as those from citrus oil, which chemically sensitive people may find hard to tolerate.  Mineral, lime and milk paints are generally well tolerated and are the least toxic paints available.   But, always check the ingredient list or MSDS.  Not all “natural” materials are safe.  Cadmium may be used as a bright yellow pigment, but cadmium is toxic.

Pick Your Favorite To Go Green And Healthy

So, this week I’m working with Double Impact and Treehugger to make sustainable actions court for charity. You get to do good by being sustainable – a win-win in the real sense of the word (and not so much how politicians use it).

So, this is how it works. I’ve picked three fairly easy sustainable steps any person can take in his or her everyday life, and I’ve explained why I picked these three actions below. You vote on which idea you like the best. The top idea will go live at the end of week on Double Impact’s website, and then that action can be used to count towards a charity, such as Healthy Child Healthy World.

You get an opportunity to win fabulous prizes for voting, and in the long run, Earth may be the real winner. This week, you can win Earthbound Farm coupons for voting.

So, the three actions I picked are:

(1) Go reusable with produce bags.  Go beyond the reusable shopping bag and eliminate plastic produce and other bags. Most of us probably usually choose reusable over paper or plastic at the grocery store, but then still use plastic produce bags. Did you know the world consumes just about 2 million plastic bags every minute? That’s right. It is estimated the world consumes 1 trillion plastic bags per year.  Dividing that out, it means we consume 32,000 plastic bags a second. And that with the exception of the very small amount of plastic that has been incinerated, every piece of plastic made in the last 50 years is still around in the environment? When it comes to plastic bags, only 0.5 to 3% are downcycled worldwide. So let’s get rid of those plastic produce bags too. I found so wonderful options on Etsy, but there are also organic cotton and other options on Amazon.

(2) Skip single serve convenience containers. With the school year getting started or about to get started, those single serve convenience containers are attractive for lunches. But, most of those containers are plastic. And plastic doesn’t just go away – it lives on in our environment. Even recycled, it is just downcycled into another plastic item that will persist. Single serve containers are also virtually always much more expensive. And plastics may leach harmful chemicals into your foods. So, pick up some glass or stainless steel containers. You may think that glass doesn’t work with kids – but those shatter resistant glass items with plastic lids (that usually don’t touch the food) made it through the  year with my kindergartener.

(3)  Take off your shoes before coming indoors. This is to reduce exposure to toxic chemicals. We track in lead, cadmium, pesticides and more on our shoes. Did you know that they still find DDT on kitchen floors in the US even though it was banned more than 30 years ago? We track it in on our shoes because it persists in the environment. But, by taking off our shoes before we step inside we can reduce exposure by as much as 65%.

Okay, so go vote.

Eggfantastic – Non Toxic Natural Dyes For Easter Eggs

In my quest to be an eco fabuous, glam green goddess of motherhood, I attempted to make natural dyes last night for our Easter eggs.  I had read an article in The Green Guide about making natural dyes, and also had an article pulled out of last year’s Country Home about natural dyes for Easter eggs.  So, I decided to make hard boiled eggs and natural dyes.  With my darling children. 

It started off with the typical questions from my 5 year old, “Mom, why does an Easter bunny leave eggs?  Why isn’t it an Easter chick?”  Trying to skip over answering that one, and my husband mumbling something about Bunnies being better than Chicks, I asked my son to pull out the eggs.  Not the best thing for a 5 year old to do.  “Mom, think I can catch this?”  Splat in the hand, with dripping yolk.  No, not without crushing it.  One egg down.

We put the eggs on to boil.  Another egg-catastrophe as it rolled onto the floor.  We started with the dyes.  My daughter wanted pink.  Okay, 1 cup pickled beet juice and 1 tablespoon vinegar to set the color.  That was easy.  ‘Til my daughter stuck her hands in it to see how pink it was.  And wiped her hands off on her dress.  She also wanted purple.  Okay, 1 cup grape juice and 1 tablespoon vinegar.  Easy.   My son wanted yellow.  Okay.  Orange peel from one orange, boil in 4 cups of water with 2 tablespoons vinegar for 15 to 30 minutes, depending on how dark  you want the color, cool, strain.   We also did red with red onion skins and green with spinach. 

It was fun with my kids pulling out stuff to boil and asking what color it would be.  Impromptu science lesson.  Various pots boiled merrily away, and strange odors wafted.  Kind of a mad scientist, eco fabulous kitchen going.  Got everything cooled, started dipping the eggs in.  You really have to let them sit in the dye for at least 15 minutes to get much color – it would probably be best to leave overnight in the refrigerator if you wanted dark color.  The problem with the waiting, as opposed to the drop in conventional pellets, is that your kids get bored.  Or have to take bathroom breaks.  And you really shouldn’t leave children alone with dye.  Natural or not.  Do you think the daycare will notice my son has slightly green cheeks this morning, or that my daughter has pink and purple hair?