City warns of lead risk in some candy

Health officials on lookout for certain Mexican-made brands

September 29, 2005|By KELLY BREWINGTON | KELLY BREWINGTON,SUN REPORTER

For years, grocery store owners Cristobalina and Juan Ramos made certain their shelves were stocked with sticky tamarind candies and lollipops smothered in spicy chili powder.

Their kids used to devour them growing up in Puebla, Mexico. And here in Baltimore, the Mexican-made treats have become a favorite among Latino children as well as non-Hispanic adults who, Cristobalina Ramos said, buy the chili-spiked mango lollipops "by the bagful."

But they won't anymore.

Tests have found that the popular candies contain dangerous levels of lead, according to city health officials, potentially exacerbating a poisoning problem that has troubled Baltimore for decades through paint, dust and even school water fountains. Elevated lead levels in children's blood can cause brain damage, behavior problems and hearing loss. Adults also can be poisoned by lead.

Over the past few days, Baltimore officials have learned that the candy believed to be tainted by lead -- banned in other states -- is being sold in some city groceries. Hispanic liaison official Rafael Regales and Health Department inspector Jessica Dawson have visited six Fells Point area merchants and urged them to remove about a dozen brands from store shelves.

They hope to begin a campaign to educate the public and shopkeepers on the sweets' dangerous potential. Communities in the District of Columbia and some states have taken similar measures since the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began issuing alerts about contaminated candy years ago. The city's Hispanic liaison's office will hold a news conference today.

Elsewhere in Maryland, the state's largest advocate against lead poisoning has distributed posters identifying tainted candy.

"This is critical," said Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning. "Hispanic children are far less tested for lead than other children. You have to engage the community to become educated and get the word out."

The Ramoses said they were shocked to learn that some of their best-loved sweets might be tainted. At their Tienda y Restaurante la Guadalupana on Eastern Avenue, they removed jars of the popular Tama-Roca, a tamarind lollipop, and stacks of Lucas LimM-sn, a powdery lemon treat.

Another city Hispanic liaison official, Lorena Beltran, told the Ramoses to contact their distributor for a refund and refuse further shipments of the candy. Dawson recorded the inventory and packed the candy to be shipped to federal officials for testing.

"We didn't know they were dangerous," said Cristobalina Ramos. "My goodness, we have been selling them for years. In Mexico, everyone eats them. I've eaten them a few times myself."

The candy can become toxic from a number of sources, according to officials. Wrappers, whose ink contains lead, can seep into the candies. During the manufacturing process, the sweets are sometimes stored in clay pots coated in a glaze that contains lead, which can leach into the candy. And in some cases, chili, a popular ingredient in the candy, contains lead.

The FDA's threshold for lead is 0.5 parts per million. But in California and elsewhere, dozens of brands have been found to have excessive lead levels. The dangers of lead-tainted candies have been known for years, but some complain that the federal government isn't doing enough to stop the products from entering the U.S.

Yesterday, when Beltran informed a Highlandtown grocery store owner about the candy, the merchant asked why the FDA allowed it to be sold in the U.S.

Around the country, legislatures have taken matters in to their own hands. Arizona lawmakers banned two brands -- Vero Vagabundo and Dulmex Rollito de Tamarindo -- after tests showed they contained lead levels exceeding the FDA threshold.

In California, the attorney general sued Mexican candy makers after tests found high levels of lead in some brands. This year, the legislature passed a bill that would require the health department to test candy containing tamarind or chili.

Latino community activists in Baltimore learned about the dangers from a 2004 report in the Orange County Register, which commissioned tests on certain candy brands. Baltimore's Health Department is distributing posters identifying the candies the California newspaper tested.

But Beltran said it may be tough to convince people that the spicy-sweet treats could be harmful. "It's like telling someone that they can't have Kit Kats anymore or M&Ms," she said.

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

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