Get the Lead Out of Turmeric!

Exposure to lead especially in childhood can have a lifetime of negative consequences:

According to the WHO, there is no known safe level of lead exposure. Relatively low levels of lead exposure that were previously considered ‘safe’ have been shown to damage children’s health and impair their cognitive development. Lead is a potent neurotoxin that, with even low-level exposure, is associated with a reduction in IQ scores, shortened attention spans and potentially violent and even criminal behaviour later in life. Children under the age of 5 years are at the greatest risk of suffering lifelong neurological, cognitive and physical damage and even death from lead poisoning.

In recent decades, some countries have begun to address the problem by removing lead from gasoline, paint, and pipes. Lead poisoning, however, remains a serious problem in South Asian countries such as Bangladesh. But where is the lead coming from?

Looks nice but what gives turmeric that pleasing yellow-orange look? Maybe, lead.

Incredibly, one small study that examined the blood of pregnant women in Bangladesh for lead isotopes concluded that a major source of lead exposure is from turmeric consumption. Turmeric is a spice used in India and Bangladesh and other South East Asian both in cooking and for health. Lead from the soil could enter turmeric but the major cause seems to be lead pigments that are illegally added to turmeric to give it a pleasing looking yellow color. Lead in spices can exceed national limits by hundreds of times.

Our results indicate that turmeric Pb concentrations were as high as 1151 μg/g (Table 2). Eight of 28 market turmeric samples contained Pb above the 2.5 μg/g Government of Bangladesh limit for Pb in turmeric (Table S6). Using the simplified bioaccessibility extraction test, prior studies reported that the bioaccessible fraction of Pb in turmeric varied from 42.9 to 70% of total Pb. (12,39) Given that turmeric is used in dishes containing tamarind and other acidic ingredients, cooking could further increase the bioaccessibility of the Pb. (40) Other researchers hypothesized that PbCrO4 is added to turmeric to enhance its color or weight, but they did not test any turmeric processing powders to assess molar Pb/Cr ratios or Pb speciation. (12) We found that the yellow pigment powders used in turmeric processing contained 6–10% Pb by weight (61 870–101 300 μg/g Pb). Both pigment and turmeric samples also contained elevated chromium (Cr) concentrations, with average Pb/Cr molar ratios of 1.3 ± 0.06 (2 SD) and 1.1 ± 0.8 (2 SD), respectively. X-ray diffraction analyses indicated that all three pigment samples contained lead chromate (PbCrO4, 10–15%), that two of the pigments also contained lead carbonate (PbCO3, 2–3%), and that one also contained lead sulfate (PbSO4, 3%). Because PbCO3 and PbSO4 have a greater bioaccessibility than PbCrO4, our results support the parallel findings of high turmeric bioaccessibility reported in other studies. (12,39,41)

Respondents described turmeric, primarily purchased as a loose powder, as one of three essential spices consumed daily, alongside chili powder and cumin. Women reported adding turmeric in heaping spoonfuls to curries and other dishes for at least one meal per day.

I’d also worry about lead adulteration of safron, another yellow spice. The problem is not limited to Bangladesh, significant amounts of lead have been found in spices sold in in New York.

Addendum: Givewell has a good rundown on Pure Earth a charity working to address this problem.

Hat tip: Alexander Berger.

Photo Credit: MaxPixel.

Are the electric vehicle subsidies too mercantilist?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one part:

The bill also has mercantilist elements, which are not ideal from a climate standpoint. The subsidies apply to North American vehicles only, and the battery components must be increasingly American over time, not allowing Chinese components. So to the extent the policy is effective, it will slant the market in the direction of American products.

That is hardly a surprising feature of US legislation. Still, US producers may not be best situated to solve the problem of affordable, scalable electric vehicles. Is it so smart to push the critical growth in electric vehicle production into a relatively high-wage market?

Some commentators have suggested that Korean automakers Hyundai and Kia will be the leaders in electric vehicle production. But they may see their biggest innovation and productivity gains outside of North America, possibly in Europe or India.

Keep in mind that climate change is a global problem; cutting back on US emissions will do only so much. This legislation could well lead to lower emissions in the US but make them marginally harder to achieve in the rest of the world, thereby reducing its effectiveness.

It is no mystery why American legislation would have provisions that subsidize American consumers and businesses. But political expediency is an explanation, not an excuse. Climate change is a global problem that demands global solutions.

Much of the rest of the column considers whether the subsidy will lead to a higher quantity of electric vehicles produced, or simply a higher price (it depends, as usual!).

Electoral sentences to ponder

It is more than ten percent less democracy at the AEA!

There is only one candidate running for president of the association.

And this is just hilarious: “Several colleagues have explained the reasons behind this, which I do not dispute. e.g. Eminent economists would not run for President if they had to compete.”

And how exactly do those “reasons” get turned into restrictions on entry?  And how about these proposals:

More seriously, what would a good economist or political scientist recommend to make this market more competitive?

And c’mon people, you really can’t fool us anymore with this stuff.  That said, the sad thing is that almost any likely reform is going to make matters worse rather than better.  So perhaps I shouldn’t have written this post at all.

New results on social capital and interconnectedness

There are two new NBER papers written by large teams, headlined by Raj Chetty.  Here is an excerpt from the first paper:

The fraction of high-SES friends among low-SES individuals—which we term economic connectedness—is among the strongest predictors of upward income mobility identified to date, whereas other social capital measures are not strongly associated with economic mobility. If children with low-SES parents were to grow up in counties with economic connectedness comparable to that of the average child with high-SES parents, their incomes in adulthood would increase by 20% on average.

And this as a general introduction to the project:

….we measure and analyze three types of social capital by ZIP code in the United States: (i) connectedness between different types of people, such as those with low vs. high socioeconomic status (SES); (ii) social cohesion, such as the extent of cliques in friendship networks; and (iii) civic engagement, such as rates of volunteering. These measures vary substantially across areas, but are not highly correlated with each other.

The core data are taken from Facebook and anonymized.  And from the second paper:

We show that about half of the social disconnection across socioeconomic lines—measured as the difference in the share of high-socioeconomic status (SES) friends between low- and high-SES people—is explained by differences in exposure to high- SES people in groups such as schools and religious organizations. The other half is explained by friending bias—the tendency for low-SES people to befriend high-SES people at lower rates even conditional on exposure.

There is then this concrete result:

…friending bias is higher in larger and more diverse groups and lower in religious organizations than in schools and workplaces.

Here is a tweet storm with a relevant map.  These papers are sure to have considerable influence on how we think about social connections.  Yes this is sociology, but has not this team done it better?

Are utilitarians more conformist?

Individuals tend to conform to the group’s moral judgments even without the presence of the group’s members.

Individual’s moral inclination affects their conformity tendency.

…people with utilitarian inclinations conform to a greater extent and more frequently than people with deontological inclinations.

That is from a new paper by I.Z. Marton-Alper, A. Sobeh, and G. Shamay-Tsoory.  Do they conform because they are more conformist, or because utilitarianism (arguably) provides a more specific path to a correct answer, at least correct within a utilitarian framework?  Just as people who all use arithmetic, rather than guessing, might be more likely to converge upon the same answer.

Via Rolf Degen.

What should I ask Jeremy Grantham?

I will be doing a Conversation with him.  If you do not know here is Wikipedia:

Robert Jeremy Goltho Grantham CBE (born 6 October 1938) is a British investor and co-founder and chief investment strategist of Grantham, Mayo, & van Otterloo (GMO), a Boston-based asset management firm. GMO had more than US$118 billion in assets under management as of March 2015.[GMO has seen this number half to US$65 billion in assets under management as of Dec 2020. He has been a vocal critic of various governmental responses to the Global Financial Crisis from 2007 to 2010. Grantham started one of the world’s first index funds in the early 1970s.

And there is more.  So what should I ask him?

Sunday assorted links

1. Job ad: Marginal Revolution University seeks marketing director (from distance is fine).

2. The New Yorker reviews The Rehearsal.

3. Scott Sumner on the new bill, and whether we should raise taxes on investment.  A good post.

4. “Finland tracks what percentage of murders were committed by men who were drunk. It has been above 50% for almost the entire time the statistics were recorded.

5. Defining use for the metaverse?

6. Esquire lists eighty books it thinks every man should read.

7. New Helen DeWitt novel coming.

Geoff Brennan, we hardly knew ye, RIP

Geoff has long been one of my favorite economists, and he was perhaps the single most underrated economist around.  For all of Geoff’s brilliance, wisdom, and contributions, he never quite made it into mainstream renown (maybe living and teaching in Australia hurt him?).

The three Brennan contributions that have influenced me most are:

1. His account of expressive voting with Loren Lomasky, showing how politics can generate a measured concern that people may not care about all that much.  That was also a big influence on Bryan Caplan’s book on voting.

2. His arguments with Jim Buchanan about the limitations of optimal tax theory (Amazon, when I search for this book, why do you summon up as the first pick “Sol de Janeiro Brazilian Bum Bum Body Cream“?).  If government policy is misaligned with social welfare, “more efficient” forms of taxation, such as the Ramsey rules, will not in general be more efficient.  In particular they can make it too easy for the government to maximize revenue and transfer resources to the public sector.  The profession as a whole still refuses to recognize this point, but it should be front and center of most analyses.  One side of the coin is that the French government is too large a share of gdp, but it would be interesting to flip the argument and try to apply it to Mexico…

3. Geoff’s book The Economy of Esteem (with Philip Pettit), which analyzed approbational incentives, building upon Adam Smith’s TMS.

Geoff was one of the few scholars comfortable in economics, philosophy, and also political science.  Two of his main books, listed above, are co-authored with philosophers.  Here is Geoff on

Personally, Geoff was popular with just about everybody.  He is also one of the few people to have worked with Buchanan and come out of the experience intact.  If he was at a conference dinner, he would be sure to find the occasion to sing a song for everybody, and he had a wonderful voice.

Geoff Brennan, we shall miss ye.

Scott Gottlieb on Monkeypox response failure

Our country’s response to monkeypox ‌‌has been plagued by the same shortcomings we had with Covid-19. Now if monkeypox ‌gains a permanent foothold in the U‌nited States and becomes an endemic virus that joins our circulating repertoire of pathogens, it will be one of the worst public health failures in modern times not only because of the pain and peril of the disease but also because it was so avoidable. Our lapses extend beyond political decision making to the agencies tasked with protecting us from these threats. We don’t have a federal infrastructure capable of dealing with these emergencies.

The failures that got us here fit a now familiar pattern.

Early on, similar to the early days of Covid, testing access for monkeypox was limited, despite ample evidence that monkeypox was spreading in the United States. The Strategic National Stockpile was meant as a hedge against viral contingencies, but when the coronavirus struck, it lacked adequate supplies of testing equipment, ventilators and masks. With monkeypox, the government hadn’t stockpiled enough of the only vaccine, Jynneos, that was indicated for prevention of the disease and considered safe for use. The United States had on hand fewer than 2,400 doses in mid-May, mostly as a hedge against the risk of smallpox, which was the vaccine’s other indication.

How can this be?  Here is more from the NYT, including concrete suggestions for reform, such as taking various extraneous activities out of the CFDC.