The pediatrician detective and high lead levels


I am not going to tell you about the dangers of lead, as it is well known and publicized, but I will tell you my family’s story with lead.

In 2012, 1 year after my younger daughter was born, I took her for her 1-year checkup. As I would do with any of my pediatric patients at this age, I took her for a lead level check. Never during my residency training or my first few years of practice as a pediatrician have I encountered a positive lead level. So when I opened the lab result sheet, I thought I would be shredding it the next moment. Well, that didn’t happen. It turned out that her lead level was 7 mcg/dL! Not too high, but detectable. The only question that kept on coming back over the next month or so was a big WHY? Why my child? Now my older daughter’s lead level was normal at her 1-year visit. We had just moved into a new house before my youngest daughter was born. I thought, it has to do with the house, and since my 1-year-old was putting everything in her mouth at this stage, then she must be getting the lead that way.

Dr. Diala Faddoul, a pediatrician in La Canada Flintridge, Calif.
Dr. Diala Faddoul
But my older daughter isn’t doing that, she was beyond that oral stage, so hopefully her lead level would be just fine. But it wasn’t. In fact, her lead level was even higher. The house we moved into at that time was built in the 1980s, so it was a fairly new house, and it was one of a series of houses in the same compound. I knocked on the door of my neighbor, who had a 3-year-old girl at the time. She kindly agreed to test her daughter’s lead level, which came back within normal limits. My nanny brought her daughter along to play with my children on a daily basis. She was not spared the poke; her lead level was fine. It also turned out that my lead level and my husband’s level were elevated as well, even more than our daughter’s levels, at 18 and 20 mcg/dL.

So it was not the house or the wall pipes that were contaminated with lead. It was not our food that we cooked, otherwise my nanny’s daughter would have had a high lead level, as she ate the same food we ate almost daily. Our family did not travel recently. So what was it that my family had or ate that my neighbor or nanny’s child did not?

The answer was thyme. It is an herb that we mix with olive oil and spread on dough – I call it Lebanese pizza. That is one thing that my nanny and her child never ate, but we did. It was a long painful month of investigation, elimination, and anxiety. I called the public health department in Phoenix and they stated that lots of imported spices were contaminated with lead. There were two theories as to why this might happen. The first one is that the spice dealers would add lead to increase the weight of the spices to get more money. The second is that the spice fields were close to factories that used lead in their manufacturing, and somehow the lead would contaminate the nearby fields where the spices grew.

The type of thyme we used was bought in Syria and packaged in Lebanon. It was not the pure organic type that we usually got from our grandparents in our southern Lebanese village. This packaged thyme had lot of nuts added to it to give it more flavor.

The public health department official asked that I send her some samples of all the spices that I had. I packed up to ten different spice bags including the thyme. Two weeks later she called me, stating that the lead level allowable in spices must be less than 10, and that our thyme’s lead level was 900!

We got rid of all the spices, and have never eaten that packaged spice again. My kids’ lead levels dropped nicely afterward and back to normal. That is our story with lead. Now it seems like a mini-detective story and even fun, but the anxiety that I experienced until we figured out the cause was not!

Dr. Faddoul is a private practice pediatrician in La Canada Flintridge, Calif.

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