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April 25, 2004
California Health Department Asleep At The Switch

My hometown newspaper, the Orange County Register in California, has uncovered an embarassing scandal that will surely result in a few heads rolling in California. Health Services apparently knew for years that candy manufactured in Mexico and primarily marketed at Latino children had high enough levels of lead to cause poisoning, but did nothing about it:

The poison arrives in an ice cream truck, "Happy Birthday to You" crackling from a single speaker wired to the roof. ... The ice cream man rests his elbows on the counter. Lopez's daughter Diana, a pigtailed 2-year-old, scans the bright pictures of treats. She doesn't want Drumsticks, Fudgsicles or Bomb Pops. Diana wants Mexican candy.

Lopez has no idea that some of the imported candy on this truck is so laced with lead it can cause memory loss, behavioral problems and kidney damage if her daughter eats it regularly. The California Department of Health Services has documented more than 1,500 tests of Mexican candy since 1993 - and one in four of those results has come up high for lead.

But the state has withheld this information from parents like Lopez, children like Diana and vendors like the ice cream man.

The Register spent the past two years investigating these tests and the lack of response from state health officials, which if these allegations are proven true, should result in criminal penalties. The state itself predicts that as much as 15% of the children suffering from lead poisoning in California have been exposed through Mexican candy, a product that is most heavily marketed to Latino children -- although it is also often sold in the major supermarkets all throughout California. The paper did its own testing of candy bought at different markets, and determined that 32% of the brands had high-lead content in their candy, and some of those brands have yet to be tested by health officials.

How does the state respond when presented with a case of lead-poisoned candy? According to the Register, not very energetically, and in some cases, by stonewalling:

The state lead-prevention branch is ill-equipped to deal with nontraditional lead sources such as candy, e-mails and memos between health officials show. Local health workers are discouraged from sending candy for testing after it is confiscated from homes of lead-poisoned children. Other health workers are stonewalled.

In one 1994 case involving a Santa Ana child, an Orange County health worker noted the problem in dealing with a counterpart in Sacramento: "She said that she discourages our focus on the candies and that if we have the state lab test candy, it will delay the testing of soil and paint, which she considers more important," Dianne Martinez wrote in her notes. ...

In July 2002, Sigrid Anderson, a Fresno County health worker, sent a fax to the state with a picture of Chaca Chaca, a candy named for the sound a train makes.

Anderson's fax contained one simple question: "Is this candy hot?"

The answer should have been yes. State tests had shown the candy to be high in lead eight times since 1998. But Anderson didn't hear that answer - even after the candy registered high nine more times in the next few months in state and federal tests. A state toxicologist told regulators in a June 2003 e-mail that Chaca Chaca proves to be "nearly always positive from virtually every source we test."

Nine more months passed before the state took action.

The state even keeps the manufacturers in the dark about test results. The Register reports that one company, Dulces Vero, had to file a Freedom of Information Act request to get the FDA to release its test results. Nearly every company contacted by the newspaper expressed surprise when told of the Register's own testing and their review of state and federal tests.

Why hasn't California acted more strenuously to block the importation of lead-laced candy, especially when it has been known for decades that children are the most susceptible to lead poisoning? Why hasn't the FDA stepped in to do the same? Why hasn't anyone been contacting the manufacturers to alert them to all of the failed tests that have been conducted? Joe Courtney, one of the state officials responsible for the prevention of lead poisoning, provides this stunning explanation:

Courtney is one of three top health officials who said he wouldn't allow his children or grandchildren to eat certain Mexican candies that have never been the subject of health advisories. Still, Courtney says, he can't just publicly condemn them.

"We can't tell people not to eat them. It would seem culturally insensitive [emph mine]," Courtney said. "We are still working on how to give out a message that is helpful and yet not overly broad and also not so vague."

Once again, our government puts cultural sensitivity ahead of public safety. First, our airport screeners cannot profile for passengers of Arab descent and have been restricted to only performing spot checks on no more than two passengers of Arab descent per flight. Now we cannot eliminate poisoned candy because of its manufacture in Mexico and its marketing at the Latino community. Courtney and the state of California feel that displaying cultural sensitivity is more worthy than the lives and health of Latino children, the most egregious example of twisted priorities I have ever seen.

Today's article is only the first in a series of six, but the article to which I've linked will have links to all six. Make sure you read this entire article and all of the updates from the Orange County Register.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at April 25, 2004 5:21 PM

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