NYC warns eye cosmetics contain high levels of lead

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New York City health officials warned that certain imported eye cosmetics contain high levels of lead and should not be used. Store owners have been ordered to stop selling the cosmetics.

The cosmetics – called kohl, kajal and surma – are imported from Asia, Africa and the Middle East and can be bought for about $3 at neighborhood stores across the five boroughs, according to the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

In recent months, the Health Department has investigated five lead poisoning cases among children and pregnant women who used these products. Children are at special risk because they may put hands in their mouths after touching these cosmetics on their faces.

Lead, a toxic metal that can cause learning and behavioral problems in children, also can damage the brain, nervous system, kidneys and reproductive system in anyone who ingests it. Pregnant women can pass on lead poisoning to their unborn children, causing premature births and lower birth weights, city health officials said.

"Children won't feel or look sick at all, but there could be problems with learning and behavior," said Nancy Clark, assistant commissioner of environmental disease prevention at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

"We urge New Yorkers not to use any products that contain lead," city Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden said in a statement. "If you are using these products, stop using them immediately and call a doctor to request a blood lead test."

Although the federal Food and Drug Administration bans the import and sale of the cosmetic products, they still end up on shelves in neighborhood stores, particularly those specializing in imported goods, Clark said. Consumers can't distinguish safe brands from dangerous ones because lead is never listed as an ingredient, the health department said.

The department has ordered distributors and store owners selling kohl, kajal or surma products to remove them from shelves and inventory stockrooms. Merchants were also told to post a warning sign for customers.

"The store owners have all been very cooperative," said Sara Markt, a spokeswoman for the department.

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