January 24, 2018

California DPH Says Lead Contamination in Imported Candy a Significant Problem

The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) has released a report about lead contamination in imported candy. A state law has mandated testing of those products. A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives and conducted at the University of California – San Fransisco (UCSF) found that CDPH “issued more alerts for lead in candy than for the other top three sources of food-borne contamination combined.”

Halloween Candy

The law that mandated testing was passed in 2006. Before that time, CDPH did not test widely for lead in candy.

In the six years before the law was passed, only 22% of alerts about food contamination were about lead in candy. But after that law was passed, 42% of the food contaminated alerts issued by state officials were for lead in candy. And nearly all of that candy was imported. That is more than the total number of recalls for Salmonella, E. coli, and botulism combined.

The current tolerable lead level in food that is likely to be consumed by children was lowered by the FDA to 0.10 parts per million (PPM) after several case reports of lead-contaminated candy were received. For instance, in 2002, childhood lead poisoning was associated with imported candy. In 2007, an outbreak investigation found food-related sources of lead exposure among children and pregnant women in Seaside in Monterey County. In that last case, some candy sampled had lead levels as high as 2,300 PPM.

The CDC says that no safe blood level in children has been identified. Lead exposure can damage every system in the body. And lead exposure does not have obvious symptoms so often goes unnoticed. There are about half a million U.S. children, ages 1 to 5 with blood lead levels about 5 micrograms per deciliter, the level at which public health officials recommend action be taken.

Lead is a toxic heavy metal. It an cause neurological damage, hearing loss, and developmental delays. As many as 10,000 children in California under the age of six are poisoned by lead every year.

Dr. Margaret Handley, professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at University of California – San Francisco said in a statement, “With this policy change, identifying lead sources is more upstream and community-based. By testing candy and issuing alerts when foods are found to be contaminated, we can identify and remove sources of lead before children become poisoned.”

In the study, scientists obtained CDPH health alerts for the years 2007 to 2014, and from the California Department of Health Services newsroom for alerts that were issued between January 2001 and June 2007. They also obtained data on candies tested in 2o11 and 2012 from the CDPH FDB Food Safety Section.

A total of 164 health alerts were issued for food contamination in California between 2001 and 2014. Of those, 36.6% were issued for lead contamination in foods.

Of the 60 lead-related health alerts issued during this period, 55, or 91.6%, were for imported foods. Almost all of the health alerts for lead-contaminated imported foods were for candy products. Most of the candy came from Mexico, China, and India.

The authors conclude that lead-contaminated candies represent “an important contribution to lead exposures in California.” The number of unique products that were identified presents a challenge for exposure-based testing programs.

Consumption of contaminated foods can immediately result in elevated lead levels, especially in children.

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