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Parents warned of lead in candy

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Last spring, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about the possibility of imported candy containing lead. The warning was one the Yakima Health District took seriously, distributing information on the tainted candy to the media and local merchants. According to an official with the health district, increased blood lead levels in children can ultimately lead to brain damage.

When it comes to satisfying your sweet tooth there are many options, everything from chocolate bars to gumdrops. But what most people don't realize is that there can be hidden dangers at play where candy is concerned.

Over the past several years there have been a handful warnings from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asking consumers and merchants to watch out for lead in imported candy.

The most recent warning was issued just last spring. In April 2004, the FDA sent out a statement noting that the administration had compiled information that indicated that "...candies and related products that contain significant amounts of chili powder may contain higher lead levels than other types of candy...examples of chili containing products include lollipops coated with chili powder and powder mixtures of salt, lemon flavor and chili seasoning sold as a snack item."

Gerri Miller, a public health nurse with the Yakima Health District, said that it was in April 2004 that the Yakima Health District started re-addressing the issue of lead in imported candy.

She explained at the time the health district received information about the possibility of tainted candy being on the market, they took action. Miller said they took the information to the media and put together some public service announcements in an effort to let people know about the issue at hand.

Miller said another measure the health district takes is to have the agency's environmental health division check out some of the local grocery stores and other vendors who sell candy. She noted that this helps ensure that vendors know about the warning and if the vendor is found to have any of the suspect candy on its shelves the health district can offer them advice.

"We can't have (our) people remove them from the shelves," she said. Instead, they can just advise vendors of the warnings.

Miller said when it comes to stores pulling it off the shelves, it can be an uphill battle.

"The thing about it is, children love it," Miller said of the chili powder candies. "It has a spiciness to it."

Miller noted that children's fondness for the imported candies can even make it so parents continue to purchase the items, even after hearing the warnings. Miller said parents often say that even though they know about the possibility of the candies containing lead, their children like the candy so they will continue to purchase it.

As for how the lead gets into the imported candy, most recently the candy in question was being imported from Mexico and the Philippines, Miller said it can either be found on the wrapper or in the candy itself.

She explained that lead used in the paint of the candy wrappers can often times leach into the candy. The other way Miller said lead can get into candy is during the manufacturing process, if the candy is not made in a clean environment.

Miller said the candy is entering the country both by vendors importing the items from other countries, as well as from people visiting Mexico and the Philippines and bringing the candy back with them.

The reason lead levels in imported candy is an issue, is because of the possible health risks that can come from ingesting large amounts of lead.

Miller explained that lead is something that can build up in a child's system and eventually cause neurological damage.

"It can cause permanent brain damage," Miller said.

She added that children with an increased blood lead level can see significant losses in their learning ability.

Miller said even the amounts of lead found in the tainted candy can be enough to cause health issues for children.

She admitted that "one little lollipop" would not likely cause any significant health risks. However, Miller said continually eating the candy can, over time, cause an increase in the child's blood lead levels and can therefore affect the child's health.

"Why put your child at any kind of risk," Miller asked.

When it comes to keeping your children safe, Miller said she encourages parents to take the time to read the labels on the candy their children are eating.

"It's good to find out where a product is from," Miller said.

She added that parents should also try to keep an eye out for any warnings from the health district or the FDA.

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