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June 18, 2000

Washington State Health Dept. Warns About Dangerous Mexican Folk Remedies

Extremely high levels of lead cited

Olympia, WA (SafetyAlerts) The Washington state Department of Health is issuing a warning about the danger of using certain types of traditional Mexican folk remedies. The remedies, known as azarcón and greta, contain high levels of lead that can make people who ingest them, especially children, very ill.

The department has learned of a recent case in Walla Walla in which a 2-year-old child was given one of the remedies for a stomachache. When tested, the child was found to have lead poisoning with a dangerously high blood lead level of 124 micrograms per deciliter. Levels of 10 and above are considered high and lead levels over 70 micrograms per deciliter are considered a medical emergency.

"The level of lead in this child’s blood was more than 10 times higher than what is considered too high," said Marcia Mueller, project manager for the state lead surveillance program. "This is the highest blood lead level we have seen in the seven years since the Childhood Blood Lead Registry was established in 1993."

"At this level, there is a potential for permanent brain damage," said Dr. Maxine Hayes, state health officer. "Fortunately, the child’s physician recognized the signs of lead poisoning, and provided prompt treatment."

The child was hospitalized and a physician was able to determine that the family had given the child a traditional Mexican folk remedy (remedio casero) called greta. Greta is sometimes used by Hispanic families as a treatment for stomachache or intestinal illness (empacho). It is a bright yellow powder that normally contains a very high concentration of lead. The state public health laboratories tested a sample of this remedy and found that it contained nearly 80 percent lead. Any amount of lead is poisonous.

Greta is not the only traditional folk remedy used in Washington State that contains lead. Another was identified earlier this year as the cause of lead poisoning in a 2-year-old Wenatchee-area child. In that case, the child had been given azarcón, a bright orange powder that is also known as rueda, coral, Maria Luisa, alarcón, or liga. A sample of the azarcón was obtained and was found to contain 70 percent lead. Greta and azarcón are rarely available for sale in our state. In both of these cases, the families brought the folk remedies with them from Mexico.

Awareness is the key to preventing this kind of lead poisoning. That is why the Department of Health is preparing outreach materials for health care providers to get the word out about the dangers of using these traditional folk remedies. Although some folk remedies may be effective in treating certain health conditions, remedies containing lead are poisonous and should not be used.

Children who have been given these remedies in the past should visit their health care provider for a blood lead test. "It’s the young children under age six who face the most serious health effects from exposure to lead," Mueller says. "These are the children we are most concerned about."

Public interested in finding out more information about lead poisoning can call the State Department of Health Lead Program toll free number 1-800 909-9898. There is also more information about lead in folk remedies and childhood lead poisoning on the state Department of Health website here.

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