STOCKTON — Imelda Ahumada watched helplessly as her infant son’s ailing stomach made him frail and weak.
First, she tried doctors, who were unable to help.
"I said to myself, ‘my child is going to die,’" said Ahumada, now a 39-year-old Stockton resident. Desperate to alleviate her son’s suffering, Ahumada took him to a local healer in a small town in México.
It’s a traditional practice, but for Ahumada’s son, it was the beginning of a lengthy battle with poison.
The healer gave the then-toddler a spoonful of bright orange powder, Azarcon, unaware that the remedy, which contains lead tetroxide, would worsen his ability to digest food for years to come and threaten to damage his brain. Another product popular among Latinos to treat stomach aches is Greta, which is pure lead.
Only now, four years after his treatment, is the 8-year-old nearing recovery.
Although his lead poisoning can be traced to a healer in Mexico, such remedies and medicines from other countries are being sold in San Joaquín County, local health officials said.
From flea market booths to Mexican markets, such sales, while underground, may be on the rise, officials said. The remedies have an allure to those who don’t have health care.
Gale Heinrich, coordinator of the county Public Health Services’ Lead Prevention Program, said she is seeing more cases linking lead poisoning to products provided by local healers or ethnic stores. In one case, a child became ill after taking a calcium supplement purchased from a local Mexican store.
The department receives about 75 new cases a year of lead poisoning from foreign medicines, candies, toys and household products; 20 of which are severe enough to be refered to the state health department.
But it’s not just Mexican markets. Heinrich said many cases have been linked to products sold by local Asian Indian and Southeast Asian stores. Surma, a kohl eyeliner traditionally used in Arab American communities for children’s eyes, has been the cause of lead poisoning. Among the Hmong community, a red powder given for rash or fever called Pay-loo-ah has proven toxic. And in the Asian Indian culture, medicines tied to lead poisoning include Ghasard, a brown powder used for digestion; Bala Goli, a flat black bean dissolved in gripe water used for stomach aches; and Kandu, a red powder ingested for stomach aches.
Besides toxic substances, health professionals are alarmed by the underground sales of antibiotics, which can cause more harm than good when improperly used.
In an investigation by Vida en el Valle, where stores were asked for "Amoxil" or "Pentrexil" in Spanish, at least one store in Stockton offered amoxicillin and penicillin antibiotics imported from México. But more vendors may be part of the underground sales, health officials fear.
Many Mexican mercados sell "herbal" or "alternatives" to antibiotics that are U.S. made. Emet Pérez, owner of Fresno-based Pérez Distributors, said the "herbal" and "alternative" medicines don’t require Food and Drug Administration approval.
"(FDA) regulates quality assurance procedures that are designed to produce safe products. When they’re not followed we have no idea what is actually in the products because they haven’t been tested," said Nancy DeGuire, assistant dean for external relations at University of the Pacific’s pharmacy school.
In fact, the increased overuse of antibiotics, even prescribed, has become a nationwide concern, DeGuire said.
DeGuire said people misusing them are at risk of killing essential bacteria in their body if they don’t actually have an infection; therefore, allowing harmful bacteria to rapidly grow and cause strong infections.
Improper use of antibiotics can also lead to developing a resistance against antibiotic medicines, as the bacteria mutates to resist drugs. DeGuire said another major concern is allergic reactions or interactions with other medicines.
Cracking down on such sales is no easy task, because merchants are guarded.
Roberto Pérez, owner of Roberto’s Liquors, said he only stocks FDA-approved drugs, but he knows of others — he refused to identify them — who offer imported prescription antibiotics over the counter.
"Even if you come incognito, they can see you coming a mile a way," Pérez said.
Elsa Hernández, a 32-year-old Stockton resident, said she often buys antibiotics over the counter at flea markets and in the past at a Main Street market, which recently closed after being investigated for money laundering and drug trafficking.
Hernández, who recently attended a parent workshop facilitated by county Public Health at Fillmore Elementary School, said she wasn’t aware selling antibiotics over the counter was illegal.
"I don’t have health insurance and I already knew what I needed to use," Hernández said in Spanish. "If my throat aches, it’s easier to buy them than to go to the doctor."
Heinrich said regulatory agencies don’t have enough resources to probe shops based only on suspicion.
"It’s a tight-knit group and you just cannot penetrate them," Heinrich said. "We don’t have the money, and the state will not randomly test this stuff. And there’s so much out there."