LAS VEGAS- May 19, 2008- Imported candies may be a significant source of lead exposure, especially among the Southwest's growing Hispanic population. Research conducted by UNLV's School of Public Health has led to the removal of lead-tainted candy from more than 1,600 stores in Southern Nevada in the last two years. To further address this emerging health issue, UNLV researchers are now developing a screening protocol for rapid, portable testing of candy and related items that can be used by lead prevention programs across the nation.
A growing number of reported cases of childhood lead poisoning have been attributed to lead-contaminated candies imported from Mexico and South America. There is currently no technique, however, for quickly identifying lead in imported candies and little is known about the relationship between consumption of these candies and incidences of childhood lead poisoning. In children six and younger, lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems; and, at very high levels, seizures, coma and even death.
"The fact that children are more susceptible to lead poisoning and also the most likely consumers of candy presents a problem that needs to be aggressively addressed," said Shawn Gerstenberger, associate professor and chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health within the UNLV School of Public Health.
For the last two years, UNLV researchers have been screening for the presence of lead in imported candies using an experimental technique with an X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) machine, a hand-held device that detects lead in paint, dust and soil. Roughly 4,000 pieces of imported candy were tested. Of the 100 different brands screened, researchers found 25 that consistently tested positive for lead in the candy, the wrappers or the containers.
The current one-year project will build on the team's prior research, confirming the validity of the XRF as a screening tool. Once the protocol is finalized, it will be distributed to lead poisoning prevention programs across the nation for use in primary prevention, case management and home investigation activities. Users of the protocol will share results with UNLV, resulting in the formation of a web-accessible national lead candy database. The database will house descriptions, photographs and lead concentrations, accessible to all participants and used to guide testing. In addition, community outreach materials will be produced and distributed to target communities nationwide.
Since most lead poisoning prevention programs already possess XRF machines, the ability to test for lead candy on-site will both aid in the identification and quick removal of atypical lead sources and reduce the current high cost of analysis.
Lead poisoning results from the gradual accumulation of lead in bone and tissue after repeated exposure to contaminated materials including lead-based paint, soil, household dust, cookware and imported products. Lead becomes present in some imported candies when drying, storing and grinding the ingredients is done improperly. Also, lead has been found in candy wrappers and straws, and could potentially leach into the product. Children absorb lead more easily than adults, making them particularly susceptible to the adverse affects of lead.
The project is funded through a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. More information on Southern Nevada's childhood lead poisoning prevention program can be found online at www.southernnevadahealthdistrict.org/clppp.