You might want to wait on that candy bar. A new study out of California has found that the state’s public health department issued more alerts for lead-contaminated candy than any other food-borne contaminant between 2001 and 2014.
Of the 164 California Department of Public Health food contamination alerts issued over 14 years, 42 percent were for lead in candy. Nearly all of that candy was imported from countries like China, India, and Mexico. This accounts for a higher percentage of food contamination reports than Salmonella, E. coli, and botulism combined. Published Thursday in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, the UC San Francisco and CDPH-led study is a reminder that lead contamination in children is still a major health problem.
In California alone, as many as 10,000 children under six years of age are poisoned by lead every year. Lead is a toxic heavy metal that is known to cause developmental delays, neurological damage, and other severe health problems in people of all ages.
The study also showed that testing candy, and otherwise actively monitoring potential sources of lead, is an effective way to help facilitate necessary food recalls.
“Without such testing, health investigators must wait until after children have been poisoned to look for the sources, which is especially difficult when the source is as perishable as candy,” states the study.
The CDHP only began testing widely for lead in candy in 2006, after the California legislature mandated it following several high-profile poisoning cases. After the new testing was initiated, lead rose from causing 22 percent of health alerts between 2001 and 2006, to 42 of them between 2008 and 2014.
The study points out that while lead poisoning prevention often focuses on removing the heavy metal from industrial sources like paint and gasoline, other sources of contamination, such as tap water, home remedy products, and contaminated foods need more thorough review. Up to 30% of pediatric lead poisoning cases investigated in California did not identify lead paint as the immediate hazard.
“As more lead sources are identified we must develop prevention approaches for all of them, and not just replace one prevention approach with another,” said Dr. Margaret Handley, lead author of the report and a professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at UCSF, in a statement. “If there is anything we have learned from the lead poisoning disaster in Flint, Michigan, it is not to oversimplify or cut corners when it comes to identifying and removing sources of lead poisoning.”
According to the Los Angeles Children’s Hospital, lead gets into candy during the manufacturing process in other countries where safety standards are often more lax than in the US. Candy ingredients may be exposed to lead dust during the drying, storing, or grinding processes. Lead may also be used in candy wrapper papers, or in the ink used to print the labels on the wrappers. And if the ink leaches through the wrapper, it can be consumed along with the candy.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, certain candy ingredients such as chili powder and tamarind may also be a source of lead exposure. Washington State’s public health officials previously warned consumers of the issue after a study found possible lead contamination from imported tamarind and chili candies from Mexico, Thailand, and Malaysia.
The potential for lead exposure from candy produced in Mexico is so serious that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued warnings and has pursued efforts to develop tighter guidelines for manufacturers, importers, and distributors of imported candy from the country.
The EPA notes that extra cautious consumers can look at wrappers for where the candy originates: Candies with elevated lead levels appear to primarily from Mexico, Malaysia, China, India, Central and South America.