From school project to FDA investigation

Lead: Inspired by the work of a Pikesville girl, the agency finds more cases of tainted food cans at immigrant markets.

May 15, 2004|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Ilana Edelman's science project at Pikesville Middle School did more than win her an award - it triggered a federal investigation into lead-tainted food cans.

Based on the 13-year-old's findings, Food and Drug Administration inspectors began visiting food sellers in the region this month, and quickly found scores of illegal cans on store shelves in Rockville, Gaithersburg and Norfolk, Va. The investigation continues and could extend into other states.

"It's a growing issue," said Stephen King, a spokesman for the FDA's Baltimore office.

The Baltimore office plans to check additional stores in the weeks ahead and will issue a report to FDA offices nationwide when the investigation is completed, King said. There could be a national recall if more lead-tainted cans are found on shelves in Maryland or elsewhere, he said.

Ilana's science project focused on whether lead-sealed cans were still on store shelves despite an FDA ban imposed in 1995 because of lead's wide-ranging health effects. Her theory was that despite the ban, some cans may be slipping through U.S. ports and showing up in markets serving immigrant groups.

In December, she checked seven small area markets that cater to immigrants from East Asia, Eastern Europe and Russia and, using a home testing kit, found lead-sealed cans in two of them.

In March, she won first place in this year's Baltimore Science Fair middle school biology division - and notified the FDA and The Sun, which published an article and confirmed some of her findings with an independent testing service. Earlier this month, the agency dispatched a consumer safety officer to her home to photograph the cans and labels and conduct a 90-minute interview.

"They were pretty thorough," said Sherri Miller Edelman, Ilana's mother.

FDA investigators didn't find tainted cans at the stores Ilana identified. But they went further, checking 13 other stores in Maryland and Virginia and finding lead-sealed cans in three of them. All three stores cater to Russian and Eastern European immigrants.

"It's surprising. That's a lot of places," Ilana said.

Inspectors found 16 lead-sealed cans of condensed milk at Euro Foods in Norfolk, 182 lead-sealed cans of milk products and canned fish at Taste of Europe in Gaithersburg and 86 lead-sealed cans of fish and cod liver at European Bazaar in Rockville, King said.

"I wasn't just surprised, I was shocked," said Felix Kats, who owns the European Bazaar, where FDA inspectors spent two hours.

Kats, an immigrant from what is now Ukraine, has owned the store for 15 years, but was unaware that lead-sealed cans were being shipped from overseas.

Lead-soldered cans have indentations on the side of the can, or crimped joints smeared with silver-gray solder, officials said. But Kats said that without instruction, the suspect cans are hard to detect - the indentation marks are covered up on most cans by paper labels.

He said the tainted cans in his store were recent arrivals. They came from canneries in Russia and Ukraine, and none had exceeded the expiration dates stamped on them, he said.

"They must still be producing these cans over there," he said.

Kats said he thought that FDA inspectors, posted at ports throughout the United States, would confiscate foods that pose health risks. Lead-sealed cans are supposed to be confiscated at U.S. borders.

Few inspections

But food safety experts say that only 1 percent of the food imported to the United States is being inspected, and most inspections focus on the kinds of food more widely known to pose health threats, such as seafood, dairy products and fresh produce.

Experts say the threat of tainted food imports is increasing because a jump in immigration is creating an increased demand for foreign foods. The U.S. foreign-born population jumped from 20 million in 1990 to 31 million in 2000, a 55 percent increase. In that period, Maryland's foreign-born population rose from 313,494 to 518,315, a 65 percent increase, census figures show.

King said the cans found in all three stores have been removed and will be destroyed.

The cans found at the stores contained fish and milk products canned in Russia and Ukraine. King said the FDA interviewed the store owners, instructed them on the tell-tale signs of a lead-sealed can and is trying to trace the origins of the cans to find the canneries and their ports of entry.

Known carcinogen

Lead is a known carcinogen. Exposure to lead from paint, dust and ceramic ware can damage kidneys and the liver along with the nervous, reproductive, cardiovascular and immune systems. In children, it can cause hearing loss, learning disabilities and brain damage. A major source of lead poisoning is lead paint still found in older homes that corrodes into dust and can be ingested.

U.S. canners voluntarily stopped producing lead-sealed cans in 1991, and the small percentage that remained were imports. The FDA banned those in 1995.

Ilana said she came up with the idea for the project last fall when her parents recalled a similar science project in 1997 that made headlines by sparking an FDA investigation in California, where the family used to live.

But Ilana said she had no idea at the time that her project would prompt a similar inquiry.

Ilana, who will attend Owings Mills High School next year, said she might continue to hunt through supermarkets for lead-sealed cans, particularly when she travels with her family on vacation.

That's if she gets permission.

"I'd have to talk to my parents first," she said.

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