Improving health, intelligence and economic growth by reducing lead exposure
1. Improve the knowledge on lead toxicity and exposure in Bangladesh
2. Develop and pilot novel, incentive-compatible, processes and technologies that reduce lead contamination within the battery and turmeric industries
3. Evaluate the uptake of the interventions to reduce lead exposure in Bangladesh
As a potent neurotoxin, lead irreversibly damages the brain, permanently lowers IQ, and reduces lifetime earnings. 90% of children with elevated blood lead levels live in lower income countries. Although the worldwide reduction in IQ from childhood lead exposure is associated with nearly one trillion dollars in lost productivity annually, there has been little investment in systems-based solution-oriented research to prevent lead exposures in low-income countries.
Why we see the knowledge we are generating as strategic
The knowledge we are generating is strategic because it enables us to actually work toward solving the problem. There has been too little investment into intervention and solutions for reducing lead exposure.
What stage on the Stairway of Research contribution to problem solving
We are in Stage 3 – the intervention development stage.
June 2019 - 2026
Stage of Work
Since 2014, Dr. Luby (School of Medicine), Dr. Fendorf (School of Earth, Energy and Environment), and Postdoctoral Scholar, Jenna Forsyth, have worked in rural Bangladesh to assess lead exposure. With funding from the Stanford Woods Environmental Ventures Program, we first conducted a population assessment that found > 30% of pregnant women had elevated blood lead levels. We then identified several plausible sources of lead and conducted an isotope study that concluded that turmeric adulterated with lead chromate pigments is the dominant contributor to blood lead in this population. We next explored the supply chain and found that polishers respond to consumer demand for yellow turmeric by adding lead chromate to dry roots during processing.
We have characterized the issue of lead exposure in turmeric, and have published several studies on the topic:
Turmeric means "yellow" in Bengali: Lead chromate pigments added to turmeric threaten public health across Bangladesh (Environmental Research | December 1, 2019)
Some turmeric, wellness potion of the moment, may owe its yellow color to lead contamination, a study says (The Washington Post | September 28, 2019)
Stanford researchers find lead in turmeric (Stanford News | September 24, 2019)
Sources of Blood Lead Exposure in Rural Bangladesh (Environmental Science & Technology | September 17, 2019)
Prevalence of elevated blood lead levels among pregnant women and sources of lead exposure in rural Bangladesh: A case control study (Environmental Research | May 24, 2018)
What are we focusing on now
In June 2018 the Stanford Center on Global Poverty and Development funded us to advance efforts to address this issue, by identifying tenable leverage points to reduce lead exposure and to develop incentive-compatible solutions to reduce lead exposure. We expanded our collaborative team to include Erica Plambeck from the Graduate School of Business with her expertise on global supply chains and Banny Banerjee from the d.school who added expertise on design thinking and business innovation. We expanded our scope to lead acid battery recycling as another important source of lead exposure. Batteries account for 80% of lead used globally. With increasing sale of vehicles including electrically powered rickshaws and solar panels systems that use lead acid batteries to store electricity, the increasing market for batteries present a growing source for lead contamination. We have begun designing strategies to interrupt lead exposure through both turmeric and battery recycling.
Yellow Dye in Turmeric Linked with Lead Poisoning in Bangladesh (The Scientist | December 17, 2019)
Primary Contact: Jenna Forsyth
. Stephen Luby, Professor: Oversees the project and research agenda
. Scott Fendorf, Professor: Advises on environmental measurements using x-ray fluorescence technology
. Erica Plambeck, Professor: Advises on the business and organizational economics aspects of the project
. Banny Banerjee, Professor: Advises on systems thinking for solution development
. Manu Prakash, Professor: Leads the development of rapid assessment tools
. Jenna Forsyth, Postdoctoral Researcher, Woods Institute: Oversees progress toward objectives, aids in the design of interventions and analysis of outcomes. “Decades of research have highlighted the adverse impacts of lead exposure, but we need more research on solutions.”
. Mahbubur Rahman, Project Coordinator, Environmental Interventions Unit: Oversees all in-country activities. “Lead in turmeric is a major public health issue and likely contributing to poor cognitive development of children. Everyday people in Bangladesh use turmeric in their curry. It’s time to stop using lead chromate to polish turmeric. This is the impact we want to have with our research.”