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A cure that's worse than the ailment.

A cure that's worse than the ailment

In their efforts to stamp out childhood lead poisoning, public-health policymakers have focused on environmental sources of the toxic metal -- such as paint, gasoline and drinking water. But anthropologist Robert T. Trotter II, at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, contends these efforts have ignored a more insidious source of lead poisoning--one largely "hidden behind a cultural curtain." That source is folk medicine.

Several Mexican folk remedies use lead to treat common ailments--like empacho, constipation thought to be caused by eating a food at the wrong time, or by making children eat foods they don't like. Trotter's survey of 31 communities suggests that roughly half the Mexican-American households in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona treat this condition with any of nearly 100 traditional remedies. While lead-based treatments usually are not the first line of defense, he found families often administer several "fingertip"-sized doses of lead compounds daily when other empacho remedies fail. In fact, Trotter notes, lead cures constipation. Unfortunately, he adds, it also precipitates many hospital visits for acute lead poisoning.

"Our estimate is that as many as 10 percent of the children in the American Southwest have potentially been exposed to a toxic dose [of lead]," Trotter reported this month at a conference on advances in lead research, convened by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park, N.C. And though intense education campaigns around 1984 got the lead compounds out of stores in Texas at that time, he says, "we've now got good evidence it's back: not on the shelves, but under the counter."

Hispanic communities are not lead's only advocates. Trotter says it's recently been identified as a folk remedy among Southeast Asian Hmong refugees, an aid to teething babies in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and part of African and Asian rituals to prevent umbilical-cord infections.
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Title Annotation:some folk remedies use lead compounds
Publication:Science News
Date:Jan 28, 1989
Words:311
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