A beauty product marketed as improving skin texture, healing acne, protecting from sun exposure and evening skin tone may be to blame for two local cases of lead poisoning.
The product is called Thanakha, also spelled as thanaka or tanaka. It is a traditional cosmetic in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. It is sold primarily in Asian import stores and online. Online, it is being marketed to a broader audience of people looking for organic skin care.
"It's definitely advertised outside the ethnic group," said Amy Roberts, who works for the Kansas City Health Department as the manager of the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program.
She says two pre-school children from two different families were recently diagnosed with lead poisoning, and when the health department investigated the cause, they found the beauty product the two families used contained high levels of lead.
"It's actually standard practice for kids who are refugees or families who are refugees or children who are coming from overseas to get tested," Roberts explained. "That's how we located them is through refugee testing."
This is the traditional use of the paste is a heavy coating painted on adults and children of all ages. In that case, the paste can get crusty and crumble. The resulting dust has been found in other states to have contaminated tables in schools.
Online, however, you can find the product marketed as an organic product that addresses all kinds of skin issues.
"It is definitely promoted as being an all-natural product," Roberts said. "And a very traditional product and something that's been used for hundreds of years to make people beautiful."
It is all natural. It is made by grinding a particular kind of wood into a paste. But the tools used to grind it have tested high for lead and so did some of the containers.
"We've seen it at a number of stores in the metro area," Roberts said.
She would not say which stores or where the two affected families live. She added that not every jar the health department bought locally tested high for lead.
Yet she said the same brands that came out safe here tested high for lead in other states.
"Sometimes the products are made in people's houses or in small shops," she explained. "And they all have different standards."
That means there is no way to be sure the product is safe.
She did, however, provide some things to look for when purchasing an imported cosmetic product. Look for ingredients in a language you know and a contact phone number on the packaging. It's also a good sign, she says, if an imported product has an official U.S. distribution company.
Roberts recommends anyone using the product stop using it, throw it away and get a blood lead test.
She said there are import regulations restricting certain products with lead, yet many get through because imports are merely spot checked so may products don't get tested.
At the local stores where the health department bought the product, the health department recommended it be removed from the shelves.
Roberts says the city has the power to force that but it is rarely needed because most retailers are compliant.
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