Health officials push bill on tainted sweets

Measure calls for lead testing of candy


After launching a campaign urging grocery stores to clear their shelves of Mexican-made candy found to contain unsafe levels of lead, the Baltimore City Health Department is working with state lawmakers to introduce legislation that would crack down on the potentially harmful sweets.

Nearly three months ago, the Health Department and the Mayor's Office of Hispanic Affairs began warning shop owners and the public about popular candies that have been found elsewhere to be toxic. The Food and Drug Administration then tested numerous samples found in local stores.

Yesterday, the Health Department announced that four out of the 27 candies contained lead levels "of concern."

Although the Baltimore candies revealed lead levels below the FDA's threshold for regulatory action of 0.5 parts per million, the sweets were found to have well over the recommended limit for lead in sucrose of 0.1 parts per million, health officials said.

"Now you have a problem here that is really concerning," said city Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua Sharfstein.

Lead in candy is the latest poisoning problem for Baltimore, which for decades has faced a vexing battle against lead contamination traced to dust, paint and school water fountains.

The Maryland legislation would be introduced in the 2006 General Assembly and would be modeled after a measure passed in California, said Sharfstein.

The California law requires the state health department to test candy, establish maximum allowable levels and require health advisories to be distributed when offending candy is found.

The brands sold in Baltimore that were found to be unsafe were: Lucas Pelucas, a spicy tamarind fruit candy; Baby Lucas, a sweet and sour powder; Super Fresaletas; a strawberry-flavored lollipop; and Super Pinaleta, a lollipop coated with chili powder.

While only a fraction of the sweets tested revealed high lead levels, the Health Department warns against Mexican-made candies containing chili or tamarind.

"We are not saying the ones that didn't test high are entirely safe to eat," said Sharfstein. "There's some concern about the quality control and the manufacturing of all of these candies."

The candy can be contaminated by numerous sources, according to health officials. Candies are sometimes stored in clay pots coated with a glaze that contains lead, which can seep into the sweets. Wrappers with lead-laden ink also can pose a contamination hazard.

The brands have been sold widely in the United States, particularly in Latino-owned convenience stores. But many local merchants have said they had no idea that their customer's favorite treats could be dangerous.

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