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Jun '23

Does ithmid kohl cause lead poisoning?

In recent years, a number of government agencies have suggested that certain types of kohl are dangerous. This has led to a serious decrease in the number of Muslims using kohl. So does kohl really cause lead poisoning? How can you know if kohl is safe or not? 

Types of Kohl

The first thing to understand is that there are two types of kohl traditionally called “ithmid” in the Arabian peninsula – antimony and galena.

There are many other types of kohl, some of which contain burnt material like the ash of luban (frankincense) or burnt date pits.

Mineral based kohl often is ground directly from stones containing different minerals, and at times may contain both antimony and galena.

Most of the confusion surrounds galena, which is a type of lead ore. 

What is the difference between lead and lead ore?

Lead is a toxic metal which has been linked to some neurological conditions. Lead has been used in many applications, including piping and paint, leading to detrimental effects in those who consume it. 

Lead almost never occurs naturally, however. It has to be extracted from lead ores. The main types of lead ore are galena (PbS), cerussite (PbCO3), and anglesite (PbSO4).

The important difference between lead and lead ores is that lead is soluble in water, and lead ores are practically insoluble.

What is the difference between a soluble and insoluble mineral?

In short, if a material can dissolve in water, it is called soluble, and if it doesn’t, it’s called insoluble. For a material to be absorbed by the body and metabolized, it must be soluble– otherwise, it will just pass through the body. 

This is what happens with galena powder when it is applied to the eyes. 

Galena, however, is soluble in acid, which has led to some concern that it could be harmful if it enters the digestive tract. This is not normally a problem, since no one eats lead ore, but on rare occasions children may ingest it. 

Even if this happens, don’t worry! Stomach acid consists primarily of hydrochloric acid, and when lead sulfide is dissolved in hydrochloric acid the lead does detach from the sulfur, but it immediately bonds to the chlorine in the stomach acids, forming lead chloride. The hydrogen in the hydrochloric acid bonds with the sulfur in the galena to form hydrogen sulfide, which is also non-toxic. 

Even in stomach acids, the solubility of galena is very limited, as demonstrated by the following equation.

Even if swallowed, the lead sulfide (galena) in ithmid kohl is not likely to be harmful.

Therefore, lead(II) sulfide precipitates from acidic solutions and will not significantly dissolve in dilute hydrochloric acid.”

Even the lead chloride that does form will still not be toxic, because lead chloride is also effectively non-soluble!

Why do some non-Muslim researchers think kohl is harmful?

It’s quite easy to demonstrate the beneficial effects of kohl. For example, recent research took 30 people who were suffering from Blepharitis and treated one of their eye with kohl and the other eye with conventional medications, and all subjects experienced significantly higher relief of symptoms in the eye treated with kohl.

The kohl used in this experiment was the same kohl commonly available in Mecca, which is often made from galena.

Some Western research, however, showed that users of ithmid made with galena have elevated blood lead levels. So if people have been safely using galena for thousands of years in the Middle East, why do researchers think it might cause lead poisoning?

To find the answer, we simply need to look at the structure of their experiments. 

Every experiment claiming that kohl users have unsafe blood lead levels relies on the same technique; atomic absorption spectrophotometry or AAS. AAS detects chemical composition by using extreme heat to break apart the chemical structure of compounds. As the compounds break apart, the atoms emit radiation at wavelengths specific to each atom, making it possible to detect the presence of specific atoms. 

The lead in lead sulfide separates from the sulfur at around 1000 degrees centigrade, producing toxic lead. The process used by most forms of AAS involves heating blood samples to as high as 2800 degrees! 

Researchers using AAS has no effective means of distinguishing toxic blood lead levels, from non-soluble, non-toxic lead sulphide in the blood. This is why you can notice in these studies that the researchers never mention any of the subject who supposedly have “lead-poisoning” as showing any symptoms. They simply call it “asymptomatic lead poisoning.” 

Other research has studied children who applied galena-containing kohl throughout childhood, and who had no developmental delays or abnormalities at all. Why didn’t these researchers ask themselves why children with chronically high blood lead levels seem to be perfectly healthy?

The answer is probably simple colonial racism. European medicine has become dominant by casting itself as superior to other medical traditions. Those educated within this system are trained to view non-Western medicines as superstitious and backward. Unfortunately, these arrogant, colonial attitudes are infiltrating Muslim communities, leading many families to abandon the use of kohl which has been prized in their families for generations. 

Follow the Money

Western medical researchers have a clear motive for demonizing kohl- job security. Kohl can be used in treating eye infections, but generally it is a preventative medicine. It supports eye health and boosts the immune system, preventing infections and keeping users healthy. 

Western medicine, by contrast, generally treats symptoms and focuses on eliminating diseases rather than keeping people healthy. When Western doctors tell people to stop using kohl, the people are more likely to get sick and come to Western clinics for expensive treatment and operations. 

It’s important to understand that traditional cultures are not stupid. Yes, there are some cases of bad batches of medicine in traditional cultures, but this is also true for Western medicine. On average, over 1,200 drugs are recalled in the US and over 100,000 people die from adverse drug reactions every year.

So who are you going to trust? Traditional cultures that have been safely using mineral compounds for thousands of years, or new chemicals developed by profit-driven pharmaceutical companies? 

At Ahya as-Sunnah, we have an experienced Egyptian registered and certified medical doctor trained in both Western and traditional medicine supervising the quality of all of our products. We only source from well-known, trusted traders or producers, and we test all of our products before offering them to our customers. We regularly use all our products ourselves. 

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