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U.S. public health group calls for tougher lead limits

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Nov. 22--The nation's largest public health organization is putting finishing touches on a resolution asking federal regulators and health officials to better control lead-tainted candies.

Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said the 50,000-member group is calling on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to lower allowable lead levels in candy and to aggressively regulate it.

The association also plans to urge the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to launch a public health campaign on lead in candy.

"It is obviously a major problem," said Benjamin, the head of the Washington, D.C.-based association with a history of lobbying for public health initiatives. "It is preventable."

The resolution comes seven months after an Orange County Register investigation showed that scores of candies, mostly from Mexico, have tested high for lead over the last decade. The investigation also showed that California officials and the FDA did little to notify the public or get candies off shelves.

Lead poisoning, even at low levels, can damage a child's ability to learn and succeed in school. Symptoms can be hard to pinpoint.

After the series ran, health departments nationwide began testing candies, warning consumers about contaminated products and pulling them off shelves. The California attorney general sued 33 candy companies and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission banned companies from importing lead-tainted wrappers.

Media and government attention has alerted some parents to the possibility that their children could be poisoned by the sweet, sour and spicy treats. Rebeca Echavarria of Kansas City, Mo., gave her 2-year-old, Nicholas, as many as 10 candies a day as a reward for potty training until he tested high for lead this past summer.

"I was really upset that a lot of people don't know about this," she said. "I'm really worried about what kind of long-term damage will be there, what will leak out from his bones. It stunts his IQ."

The American Public Health Association approved the lead resolution during its annual meeting of some 14,000 public health professionals. It was among some 20 resolutions approved, including one to support nutritional labeling on fast-food products and one to reduce alcohol advertising to youths.

The resolution, expected to be finished within weeks, calls on the FDA to set an allowable lead limit for domestic and imported candies at 0.1 parts per million. Currently the FDA regulates products that register 0.5 ppm and above for lead.

Officials from the FDA and the CDC said they were not aware of the resolution and could not comment.

However, CDC health specialist Pam Meyer said the agency is calling together different groups on Dec. 8 in Atlanta to talk about contaminated candies and other nontraditional sources of lead poisoning.

While lead-based paint is still considered the most common lead source, public health experts are becoming more aware of other contaminants. The agency also is updating its Web site to include the risks associated with imported candy, Meyer said.

"We definitely recognize that there is candy out there that is contaminated with lead," Meyer said. "There are so many new things we keep hearing about. It seems like it is time to get serious about addressing these other sources."

Also last week, Illinois government officials announced a statewide embargo of four Mexican-brand candies found to have high levels of lead. The Lucas-brand candies, made by a subsidiary of Mars Inc., are powdered products packaged in salt-and-pepper shakers. Mars issued a nationwide voluntary withdrawal of the children's treats, but the shakers still are widely available.

"The state of Illinois will not tolerate shelves that are stocked with lead-laced candy available for sale to children," Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said.

The California Department of Health Services issued a health advisory about Lucas-brand candies in August but said officials could not pull children's treats from the shelves because they are labeled as seasonings. The FDA does not have an enforceable lead limit in seasonings.

Echavarria said that she was shocked when her son tested high for lead in a routine test in July. She had been conscious of lead hazards because her long-time boyfriend builds batteries. He drives a different car, changes his clothes before coming home and wears clean shoes into the house.

After Echavarria learned about her son's high lead level she turned to the Internet for help and read about contaminated candies.

"I was really upset. I was more outraged that there was no kind of media coverage or health advisory, when I went online and saw other states that at least had an advisory," said the 26-year-old mother of two and full-time college student.

She called the Kansas City Health Department and requested that candies from her home be tested. Four wrappers came up high in lead. Since she stopped giving her son candies, his lead level dropped from 19.2 micrograms per tenth of a liter of blood in July to 10.1 in September. The CDC considers children with lead levels of 10 and above to be at risk; however, studies have shown that even lower levels can reduce a child's IQ.

She's frustrated with government health warnings that advise parents to limit the amount of imported candies they give children. Federal and state health officials have said tainted candies are hard to regulate because candy test results are inconsistent: Sometimes candies test high, sometimes not.

The Kansas City Health Department issued a health alert in October telling parents not to let children chew wrappers and limit the amount of imported candies they eat.

"It is like playing Russian roulette with our children's lives," Echavarria said. "I don't understand that response. It's lead. Who would take that chance?"


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