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    “The Spice Sellers’ Secret,” by Kris Newby

    Stanford University School of Medicine  
    The Robert G. Fenley Writing Awards: Solicited Articles 
    Best in Show Finalist & Winner

    This medical mystery follows Jenna Forsyth, a young environmental scientist at Stanford University, as she hunts for the source of lead poisoning in pregnant women and children in rural Bangladesh. Between 24 million and 46 million children in Bangladesh have lead levels above the recommended threshold, the fourth highest number in this age group after India, Nigeria, and Pakistan. Lead poisoning has lifelong, irreversible effects on the cognitive abilities of children, and the social and economic impacts to a country can be devastating. Using old-fashioned detective work and a novel method for identifying lead sources in blood, Forsyth and an interdisciplinary team of Stanford scientists traced the lead poisoning to spice sellers who were mixing turmeric with colorful lead-chromate pigment to boost sales. Using these findings, Bangladeshi officials worked with the Stanford team to launch a nationwide educational campaign and market sting operation to discourage this practice. As a result of this intervention, the incidence of adulterated spice plunged from 47% in September 2019, to no detectable lead in 2021, and blood-borne lead levels in study subjects dropped by 30%. The article was published online and in print in Stanford Medicine magazine’s Issue 2, 2023. 
    What was the most impactful part of your entry? 
    Response from our readers has been effusive and, based on feedback, it has had a real impact on health. One reader sent the article to the Indian prime minister’s office with a suggestion that a similar program be launched in-country. Several U.S.-based South Asian readers contacted the researchers to investigate whether their families’ elevated blood lead levels could’ve been caused by turmeric hand-carried home from India. Dozens of readers have sent praise to the writer and responded to social media posts. In the first four months after publication, the article had more than 24,000 views; and an Instagram post had more than 3,000 likes and 55,000 impressions.  
    What is one thing you learned from your entry/experience? 
    Public health solutions are never one-size-fits-all. This story brought out the importance of partnering with local parties in studies and interventions from beginning to end. The researchers were surprised that the “enforcement theater” of the turmeric market sting worked so well, but in the end, they saw the wisdom of their local partners’ approach. It was a very fast, cost-effective way to educate the masses. 
    Contact: Alison Peterson