By: Pooja Sharma

Lead-related foodborne illnesses have had more alerts in food contamination than Salmonella, E. coli and Botulism combined. These statistics were revealed in a joint study by the California Department of Public Health and the University of California at San Francisco this year. Over a fourteen year period – 2001 to 2014, there has been a rise in lead-related contamination alerts and almost 42% of all are linked to lead. In addition, the study also revealed the major link to this lead-based food contamination is through imported candies. These candies mainly originated from countries such as: Mexico, Malaysia, India, China, Central America, and various varied locations in South America.

These studies concluded after the California Department of Public Health mandated lead testing on imported products. According to recent stats in 2017, almost 1.2 million children in United States suffer from lead poisoning and only half of them get treated. For many years, the state’s Department for Food and Drugs has routinely prepared and distributed the alerts for potential toxic food exposures to regional and county public health programs and practicing clinicians. They also issued a general public warning. Before the mandatory testing in 2006, just 22% of alerts regarding food contamination involved lead in candy. But after the testing, the number rose to 42%.

What do the studies say?

Around 10,000 children are lead poisoned in California each year. Among all the warnings issued for imported food products, the one related to lead accounted for around 96.3 percent. In United States, lead poisoning cases among children are quite high. The majority of contaminated candies are imported from Mexico (34%), China (24%), and India (20%). In 2011-2012, a study was conducted, and it tested a total of 1346 candies. Of these, 64 candies were found to contain lead and almost 40 of them exceeded the federal limits for children of 100 parts per billion. Around 35% of these candies came from India and others came from other countries such as Taiwan, China, Mexico, Pakistan, etc.

California Childhood Lead Poisoning and Prevention conducted a study in 2002 – which reported that 155 of the 1000 lead poisoning cases in California were linked to candy imported from Mexico. The legislation that passed in 2006 by the California Department of Public Health assigned its Food and Drug Branch (FDB) to oversee all the candy testing and warnings. Their site (FDB’s) includes an annual list of all the candies that have been tested for lead contamination. As of the 13th of September this year, none of the candies tested for more than 0.005 parts per million lead. This is a permissible and safe level in California.

How does lead get into candy?

Lead generally gets into the candy during the manufacturing process. It is more common in countries where the manufacturing standards and food safety standards are not as rigid as in the United States. Foreign manufacturers often do not follow (or even have) the same rules as the United States for the candy manufacturing process. Here are some ways by which lead can contaminate candy:

  • The ingredients of candy may get exposed to lead dust while drying, storing, and grinding. This only happens when the manufacturing and processing of the candy are not done properly.
  • Lead might be used in the candy wrapper paper. Sometimes the toxicity is so much that these wrappers can easily increase the amount of lead in the candy – massively increasing the risk of illnesses.
  • The ink that is used on the candy wrapper can also touch the candy. The ink can leech through the paper and contaminate the candy.
  • According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some candy ingredients, like tamarind and chili powder, can also be a source of lead exposure. There have been several reports of spices being contaminated with lead.

The people who are selling these candies might not have the knowledge about the exposure. They do not know whether their candy products contain lead or not. Consuming even a small amount of candy that contains an unsafe amount of lead can harm you. The most effective way to protect yourself from lead poisoning is to not ingest imported candies.

FDA has already adopted new rules and stricter standards for all the candies that get imported, but it is still better to be safe and avoid them. The only effective way to determine the lead levels and if you are at risk for lead poisoning is by testing the candy. In case of an outbreak, the investigators would have to trace out the source. After the correct identification of source, it is crucial that lead contaminated candies do not end up in the hands of anyone, especially children. This process could take weeks or even months, however.

How can lead poisoning affect you?

Lead poisoning can have serious effects on any individual and the risks are much higher in young children. Since any source of lead poisoning will significantly affect young children and kids, it is very important that to be aware of the harmful effects lead can have on our health. Lead Poisoning occurs when lead builds up in the body in high amounts.

According to WHO, lead can have serious effects on health of children. It can cause severe mental and physical impairment. Since their brains and nervous system are still developing, some of the changes might be irreversible. At high levels, the lead can cause mental convulsions, coma and even death. Lead can affect the brain and cause behavioral changes such as reduced attention span, reduced IQ and increased antisocial behavior.

Signs and symptoms of lead include: abdominal pain, abdominal cramps, confusion, constipation, sleep problems, headache, irritability, loss of appetite, numbness, memory loss, anemia etc.

Treatment generally includes performing chelation therapy and trying to treat the symptoms. Treatment options are highly dependent on the age of the victim and the amount of lead in their body.

With holiday season right around the corner, it is crucial that you keep checking the list of candies that are lead contamination safe. With more sources, the organizations have been working day and night to introduce more preventive measures.