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Asian Child Protection Amulets Linked to Lead Poisoning: CDC

Federal health officials have growing concerns about a potential risk of lead poisoning from traditional protection amulets that are often given to the children of Asian immigrants. 

Some of the traditional amulets, often worn on beaded necklaces, have very high lead content which is causing some children to suffer lead poisoning, according to a lead poisoning report released this week by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC is asking health care providers about the use of amulets if they see elevated blood lead levels (BLLs) in Southeast Asian children and is trying to educate those communities that the amulets can cause lead poisoning.

The concerns were highlighted by a case report of a one-year-old Cambodian boy in New York. The boy had a BLL of 20 milligrams per deciliter, twice what the CDC considers to be a level of concern, but investigators had trouble finding the source of the lead exposure until they investigated a traditional amulet the boy wore as a protective charm. He had been seen mouthing the amulet, which was found to have a lead content of 450,000 mg/kg.

When the amulet was taken away, the boy’s BLL quickly dropped, from 20 mg/dL to 14 mg/dL in 8 days, and in five months his BLL was down to 5 mg/dL. The boy’s 6-year-old cousin also had an amulet and a BLL of 17 mg/dL, which dropped to 7 mg/dL three months after the amulet was taken away. The boy’s 10-year-old sister also had an amulet, but her BLL was only 4 mg/dL. Investigators suspect she was old enough not to mouth the beads.

According to the CDC, the amulets are common among ethnic groups from Southeast Asia, including Cambodians, Vietnamese, Hmong and Laotian immigrants. They are given to infants and toddlers and worn around the neck, wrists or waist. The amulets are typically made of several knots of black and white string, metal beads or both. There is some anecdotal evidence that at least some of the amulets are made from melted down lead bullets.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) consider 10 milligrams of lead per deciliter of blood to be the level of concern for exposure to lead. The CDC estimates that approximately 250,000 children in the U.S. have blood lead levels that high or higher.

Lead poisoning can result in nervous system injury, brain damage, seizures or convulsions, growth or mental retardation, coma and even death for young children. 

While high levels of lead exposure are often the focus of scientists, recent research has highlighted the effects of even low levels of exposure to lead on children. Other studies have tied low lead exposure to the development of kidney damage and depression and panic disorders.

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