What started as a routine look at lead poisoning from old paint at the Orange County Register turned into a two-year investigation of lead poisoning from Mexican candy. The investigation focused attention on a little known problem and is already leading to change. Host Steve Curwood talks with the two journalists from the Register who uncovered the story.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
It’s that candy time of year. The time when kids put on costumes and knock on doors to load up with the sweet stuff of Halloween. But you don’t want them to bring back home some of the popular candies that are imported from Mexico. The problem surfaced in South California. That’s where a team of journalists from the Orange County Register found dangerous amounts of lead in some candies from south of the border.
The newspaper reported that a child in Orange County is as likely to get lead poisoning from tainted Mexican candy as from eating chips of lead paint. The Register traced the lead in sweets back to the production of chili deep inside Mexico. With me to talk about their investigation are journalists Jennifer McKim and Valeria Godines. Welcome to you both.
MCKIM: Hi, Steve.
CURWOOD: Jennifer, let me start with you. Now, we should say first that some of these are very, very popular candies that generations of Mexicans and Mexican Americans have grown up on, and they’re sold pretty widely in the United States wherever Mexican goods are sold. And you found out that the state of California and the federal government knew that there were problematic amounts of lead in some candies and were doing little about it. But what got you involved in this story in the first place?
MCKIM: We were interested in the issue of lead poisoning in Orange County because of another story had brought up this issue, so we went to this county healthcare agency. We wanted to find out what was the problem. We asked them for their documents of investigations into the homes of children who have lead poisoning. When a child is found with high lead levels they go to their home and look for sources. And when we got those documents what surprised us was that many of these children were getting poisoned by lead in candy.
So that was brought the story to us. And at that point we started requesting public records from the state and the feds asking for their information. And when we got the records from the state and federal government, we were surprised to see that they had known about this for ten years and that there were hundreds of tests of high levels of candy which they had found many times in the homes of lead poisoned children. And yet, in most cases, they weren’t telling neither public health officials, children, parents, or even Mexican officials or the companies that they were finding these problems.
MCKIM: It’s a significant amount of lead. We found that in 80 percent of the cases of high tests that eating just one piece of candy would exceed the amount of lead that the FDA thinks is safe for a child to eat in one day. So, if you eat over time you can really raise your blood lead level, and, as you know, Steve, lead poisoning even in low levels can affect a child’s ability to learn. They can have behavioral problems, so even at low levels it’s a significant problem.
CURWOOD: To what extent did the authorities who were discovering this report it to the public and warn people?
MCKIM: When we started reporting this, I think there’d been six public health warnings over a period of ten years and they’d had scores of other candies that had tested high over periods of time, which they hadn’t. So they had told a little bit, but not a lot. And we asked about that clearly, and said “why aren’t you telling people?” And through the emails and through interviews we found out several things.
One is that just part of the issue with these candies is you can test one candy in a batch and it will test high, and then the next will test low, so it’s not homogeneous, the testing. And some of the public health officials said they couldn’t go and warn people about a candy that only tested one out of ten times high in lead; they were concerned about liability. We found in the emails and interviews that they were concerned that they’d get sued by these companies if they warned people. We had public health nurses calling and saying “is this candy dangerous?” And they wouldn’t even give them the information they had.
CURWOOD: And I guess your newspaper, the Orange County Register, went to the trouble of testing candy samples yourself. So, what did you find?
MCKIM: We tested about 180 samples of candies and wrappers. The problems are both in the candies and the wrappers, and found about 32 percent of brands tested high. We also did extensive database work with the federal and state candy testing over years, and found about a quarter of their tests also were high.
CURWOOD: So, what of these high samples was high enough to elevate a child’s blood lead level to pass to safe limits?
MCKIM: If you have a candy that’s point two parts per million, which is the lowest level that they’d really been testing at, and it’s a regular size candy bar, if you ate that that could equal six micrograms of lead which, if you ate over time, would raise your lead level.
Again, they don’t have any testing for lead that if you eat one piece of anything it will raise your blood level. But eaten over time, they show that if you eat that much candy it will go up. Within a 30 day period your blood lead level could go to dangerous levels.
CURWOOD: And 30 days is enough to do a lifetime of damage?
MCKIM: Lead poisoning is irreversible, it doesn’t go away. So, yes, it can cause problems that never go away.
CURWOOD: The big question, obviously then, here is how on earth does lead get introduced into candy? Valeria Godines, can you help me here?
GODINES: Sure, yeah, that’s an excellent question. One thing during our reporting that we kept hearing from officials on the U.S. side of the border is that they suspected that chili, which is a main ingredient, milk chili - a main ingredient in a lot of these candies - was a problem. But there weren’t any conclusive comprehensive tests that they did so we were sort of at a crossroads and we wanted to find out the source of this poisoning and decided we would go find out ourselves.
And what that entailed was us tracing the trail of candy backwards, all the way down to the farms where this chili is grown. We tested everything from the well water to the soil in these chili farms to actually the fresh chilis off the fields, and followed the process all along the way until the chili was actually ground up.
CURWOOD: And where is the lead?
GODINES: We found from our tests in Zacatecas, we found that it actually wasn’t in the water, wasn’t actually coming fresh from the fields. What we found it was in the milling process. Somewhere between the drying process and the milling process lead is getting in. It’s really quite fascinating to see the way it happened because, you know, in the fields, fruits and vegetables generally don’t take up lead from the soil. I didn’t know that at the time, so we were submitting these tests of fresh peppers and they kept coming back negative, so we said “okay, we know that’s not it.”
Then we followed it to the next step, which is drying. And there are various drying facilities where they take them and dry them over 30, usually 34, 36-hour period, and then they lay them out on the ground. So we took some samples from several driers there, we began to see a problem with lead there. We began to get some hits there. It’s somewhat, a little bit of a dirty process; a lot of it’s laid out in the ground as they’re packing them up in various bags, you know men get in and stomp and it with their boots and whatnot.
So I then followed it from the driers to the chili mills, and what we saw was that in many cases, the chili is not washed before it’s milled. Something that was really startling that we discovered is that these chili farmers – when they sell them to the millers, it’s paid by weight. And so there’s a real incentive for them to weigh their bags down.
CURWOOD: Oh….so, what did you find in those bags?
GODINES: (LAUGHS) Well it was interesting because I was spending some time at a mill and I was talking to one of the workers and I said “I’m just curious about the kind of impurities that might come in these bags.” And he kind of laughed, he’s like, “Oh, I’ll show you impurities.” And he came back and showed me a car battery part…nails, rocks. They told me about, you know, they’ve found hammer coming out of these bags, and all sorts of things. And I asked him how…what he told me is that eight out of ten bags that went to that mill contained junk.
And then the dirt actually, too, since a lot of these chilis were not washed, the dirt clinging to these, you know, we think that that’s also another source.
CURWOOD: What happened if the chilis were washed then?
GODINES: We think, and from various lead experts, that that would reduce it by quite a bit. You know, there’s still these other ways – sometimes a lot of them use these really old milling equipment that might be lead soldered, and then over time it grinds itself up and can get in that way. So, there are different ways aside from the dirt, but I really think by doing a thorough washing, that that really could help.
And I should stress. too, because someone may be wondering, “well, maybe you just picked up a bad batch.” We went to four different Mexican states. We went to Michoacan, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, and Jalisco, and went to the major, major agricultural markets over different periods and bought milled chili from these, and in almost all cases they had lead.
CURWOOD: Now, I understand that your paper, the Orange County Register, has printed up posters of all the candy that tested high for lead, and I’ve got a copy here. It’s both in Spanish and in English, it’s got a little chart showing what lead can do to you and how to avoid it, both in candy and in other sources. What has happened since your investigation?
MCKIM: That poster has been very popular. We printed up 370,000 copies that went out with our story, but since then we had requests from public health officials, public nurses, schools across the country from Virginia to Seattle asking for copies of that poster. We printed up 50,000 more copies to distribute and ran out. We also had the Los Angeles school district request permission to print them out; they printed out about a million copies to send out to their schools and their students.
I think candy manufacturers have seen their businesses drop, and they’ve been doing internal scrutiny to see where lead gets into the product. There’s also been a whole lot of government action since we started the project. A couple weeks before we ran the story, the U.S. FDA sent out a statement saying they were aware that there was problems with lead in candies, and that it would be prudent for kids not to eat certain candies with chili and tamarind in them, and also certain seasonings that kids eat as candy.
Since the story ran, the State Attorney General filed a lawsuit against 33 different companies trying to get the lead out. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a ban on companies bringing in candies with high lead in their wrappers. State health departments from New York City, Chicago, Milwaukee, Nevada have all done their own testing and found some lead in certain things and also sent out health warnings on these candies. So there’s been a lot of action, which has been very gratifying.
The fact is these candies are still very available on the street still and we can’t be sure, at this point, that they’re much better than they were before. So there’s still a lot of people out there working on this issue at this point.
CURWOOD: Before we go, I have to ask you something. I have some ground chili in my kitchen that I use on things. Should I be getting that tested?
GODINES: Yeah, that’s a good question. When we were working on this and started to get positive hits on the chili, we all looked at each other and thought “oh my God” – our salsa, our pico de gallo, and things like that. So, in addition to the milled chili, we tested 25 U.S. and Mexican products made with chili: salsa, cooking seasoning, picante sauce, things like that. And what we found actually was almost none of those had any problems. There was one that had point two parts per million at the lower end of the scale.
CURWOOD: I want to thank you both. Jenifer McKim is a reporter, and Valeria Godines is an editor of the Orange County Register in Orange County, California. Thank you for taking this time with me today.
GODINES: Thank you.
MCKIM: Thank you very much.
[MUSIC: Los Lobos “Flor de Huevo” PUTOMAYO PRESENTS: MEXICO (Putomayo – 2001)]
CURWOOD: Coming up: a sudden uptick in the gases that are warming the earth has scientists concerned. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: Buddy Emmons “Four Wheel Drive” AMAZING STEEL GUITAR: THE BUDDY EMMONS COLLECTION (Razor & Tie – 1997)]
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