Teen helps get lead out

Hazard: Lead-sealed food cans were prohibited nearly 10 years ago. But a Pikesville girl's science project shows surprising results.

Medicine & Science

April 19, 2004|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Ilana Edelman had doubts about focusing her eighth-grade science project on whether food stores stocked lead-sealed cans.

After all, lead-sealed cans are a well-known health hazard. They were supposedly phased out of the U.S. food supply in the 1980s and prohibited by the federal government in 1995.

But the 13-year-old Pikesville Middle School pupil was intrigued by the possibilities: "I really wasn't sure what I would find. But I wanted to see," said Ilana.

What she found surprised not only her but also a top food safety expert at the Food and Drug Administration -- the federal agency charged with keeping unadulterated foods off the nation's supermarket shelves.

Using a lead-testing kit purchased at a home improvement store, Ilana determined that a grocery store -- a small outlet catering to Russian immigrants in Pikesville -- was selling fish and condensed milk in the prohibited lead-sealed cans. The Sun confirmed the results in tests conducted by a state-certified testing firm.

"There shouldn't be any of it. It's illegal for any food to be sold that way in this country," said George H. Pauli, acting director of the FDA's office of food additive safety.

He said concerns about lead cans prompted their removal from many supermarket shelves in the 1980s. U.S. canners voluntarily stopped producing them in 1991, and the small percentage that remained were imports. The FDA banned those in 1995.

The issue hasn't been an FDA priority since then because there have been so few complaints, Pauli said.

"Most of the countries we had known were doing it eliminated the practice," he said.

Cans sealed with lead solder are supposed to be confiscated by the FDA at U.S. borders. Lead soldered cans have indentations on the side of the can, or crimped joints smeared with silver-gray solder, officials said.

But Pauli acknowledged that the FDA inspects only a small percentage of the food imported into the U.S. and that no one is sure how many lead cans may be on store shelves.

"I have no idea," Pauli said. "It should be none."

Ilana called the FDA's Baltimore office in January to alert them when she completed her project. But the FDA initially took no action, and several weeks later, the same type of lead cans -- from Russian and Ukrainian canneries -- were still being sold. An FDA spokesman in Baltimore told The Sun last week the complaint would be investigated.

The owner of International Foods, the market on Reisterstown Road where the foods were being sold, said he knew nothing about the prohibition on lead-sealed cans. He expressed surprise that he had them on his shelves.

"This is the first I've heard about it," said Boriss Shklyar, who has operated the store for seven years.

During an interview, Shklyar pledged to take the cans off his shelves and instructed an assistant to begin removing them. He identified his supplier as LIR International, a Brooklyn-based food import and distribution firm.

"I'll return them. It really is no big deal," he said.

LIR sold about five cases of condensed milk to Shklyar about a year ago, after the milk arrived in pallets from a supplier based in the Ukraine, according to Aksana Straschnow, who runs the firm. She could not recall if she sold any of it to other stores but said she has none of the product left. She said she did not sell Shklyar any canned fish.

"If the FDA wanted to come in and inspect, there wouldn't be anything for them to find," said Straschnow. She added that she has FDA approval to import food and abides by all federal regulations, but didn't know that any food cans contain lead.

"Of course, I knew nothing about it. I had no idea this was a problem," she said.

Experts say the increase in immigrant populations may mean a return of the problem. The U.S. foreign-born population jumped from 20 million in 1990 to 31 million in 2000, a 57 percent increase. In that period, Maryland's foreign-born population shot up from 313,494 to 518,315, a 65 percent increase, census figures show.

"Because of the cultural diversity of the U.S. population, people are eating all kinds of foods from all over the world," said Marc Edwards, an expert on lead corrosion at Virginia Tech.

But the FDA is inspecting only about 1 percent of the food imported into the United States, and most of those inspections are of foods considered a higher risk than canned goods for making people sick, such as fresh produce, seafood and dairy products, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Ilana said the idea for the project came from her parents, who recalled a similar science project in 1997 in California where the family used to live. In that case, a middle school pupil in Oakland found lead-sealed cans in Asian markets.

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