Lead and other contaminants of two South Asian cosmetics : the use of Surma and Kajal among South Asian immigrants in Winnipeg
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A body of research suggests that the eye cosmetic Surma poses a threat to the health of its users. In particular, Surma is frequently found to contain a high percentage of lead in the form of galena (PbS). The South Asian population of Winnipeg, Canada was the target population for this examination of the use and safety of Surma and Kajal, a similar substance. The goals of the research were to determine the extent of Surma and Kajal use in Winnipeg, to identify their contents and contaminants and to collect all data in such a way as to maximize its utility in the event that a significant risk to their users was established. Fifty informal interviews were conducted. Information regarding informants behavior, history, socio-demographic status and knowledge about Surma and Kajal was solicited to produce a profile of Surma/Kajal users and an understanding of the history and meaning behind the traditions. Surma and Kajal samples were collected and subjected to analysis of their chemical contents (including lead) and their microbial contaminants. Many Surma samples were found to be heavily contaminated with bacteria, yeasts and molds. As well, thirteen of nineteen contained 50% or more lead. Analysis of Kajal samples was less successful, the five subjected to chemical analysis had only small amounts of lead. No link between region of origin of a sample and its contents was observed. Surma and Kajal are used for a variety of reasons including their medicinal properties, aesthetics, warding off the evil eye, and religion. Modern Surma and Kajal use continues a thousands of years old tradition. While the use of these products is decining somewhat among younger South Asians, Kajal is still used in 24% and Surma in 18% of households sampled. Although acculturation is affecting these traditions, steps are still necessary to ensure that high-lead Surmas do not harm those most vulnerable to lead poisoning. Community consultation, discourse with South Asian physicians and the promotion of testing of Surmas in use should be undertaken to reduce the risks while maintaining respect for the antiquity and integrity of the traditions.