Health officials warn of lead in foreign remedies


By Jennie Rodriguez
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 the boy, whose name she asked not be used.

"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 healer in a small town in Mexico.

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. Other healers are known to dispense Greta, which is pure lead.

Only now, four years after his treatment, is the 8-year-old nearing recovery under a doctor’s care.

Although his lead poisoning can be traced to a healer in Mexico, such remedies and medicines from other countries are being sold in San Joaquin 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 referred to the state health department for follow up.

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 led to lead and arsenic poisoning. 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.

Cracking down on such sales is no easy task, because merchants are guarded.

Roberto Perez, owner of Roberto’s Liquors, said he stocks only FDA-approved drugs, but he knows of others – he refused to identify them – who offer imported prescription antibiotics over the counter. But catching them in the act is problematic.

"Even if you come incognito, they can see you coming a mile away," Perez said.

Elsa Hernandez, 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.

Hernandez, who recently attended a parent workshop facilitated by county Public Health Services 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," Hernandez said in Spanish. "If my throat aches, it’s easier to buy them than to go to the doctor."

Heinrich hopes such workshops will convince people to stop buying such dangerous products, because stopping their sale is nearly impossible. 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."

Contact reporter Jennie Rodriguez at (209) 943-8564 or

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