Old, lead-containing paint has long been considered the major source of lead poisoning in children. But California health officials last week identified certain lead-contaminated candy, pottery and folk remedies from Mexico as a growing threat to children.
About 15% of California children with lead poisoning had been exposed to lead-contaminated candy or other products originating in Mexico, a recent state study found. The study examined about 1,000 children diagnosed with elevated blood lead levels between May 2001 and January 2002.
While many of the children had eaten contaminated candy made in Mexico, the report, published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also cited cases of lead poisoning from imported pottery and from a Mexican folk remedy called greta. Greta is a lead-based powder, typically made from soil, that is popular in parts of Mexico to treat stomachaches or intestinal illness.
Nationwide, most childhood lead poisoning occurs from ingestion of old paint chips or lead-contaminated soil. But the lead found in candy, pottery and folk remedies is a particular problem in border states, such as California.
"Soil, dust and paint are the most important sources of lead poisoning, even for groups like our Latino immigrant population," said Dr. Joseph Courtney, chief of care management and research for the state's Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch and the study's lead author. "But these cultural sources probably represent another important exposure for these groups."
This is the second time in recent years that state health officials have issued warnings about the potential dangers of some candy from Mexico. Last year, the state joined the Food and Drug Administration to stop sales of tamarind fruit lollipops called Dulmex Bolirindo after the product was found to have lead-contaminated wrappers. The FDA has also embargoed products containing tamarind fruit. But, said Courtney, tamarind candies are still found in the state.
"They are coming in through all kinds of routes," he said. "These candies are fairly commonly eaten by kids. If you went out and asked a sample of young Latino children if they had eaten these candies, I'd bet a lot of them would say they have."
State investigators are also attempting to identify other Mexican candy products that might contain lead, such as sweet-tasting jams sold in small, ceramic pots that may leach lead. Candies made in other parts of the world, such as Southeast Asia and other Latin America countries, may also contain potentially toxic levels of lead, Courtney said.
"It's difficult to make any definitive identification [of lead] because there is huge variability from candy to candy and lot to lot," he said. Quality control at foreign manufacturing facilities can vary widely, he added.
Infants, young children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning. Even short-term exposure can damage the central nervous system, resulting in learning disabilities and behavioral disorders. The persistent threat of poisoning underscores the importance of routine screening for lead, health officials stated in the report, published in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
State regulations require health professionals to check children between the ages of 6 months and 6 years for lead poisoning. Under state guidelines, children treated in publicly supported programs, such as Medi-Cal and Healthy Families, are given blood tests at 12 and 24 months of age. For other children, health professionals are supposed to ask families about possible sources of contamination, such as living in a dwelling built before 1978 that has peeling paint or that has been newly renovated.