A Taste of Lead

Holding a container of Lucas candy, para-professional Concepcion

Mexican candies pose a health threat, but some kids say it’s
worth the risk
Gilroy – They sprinkle it on green apples and ice cream. They mix it with water and pour it in their palms and lick it off. Some of their parents even blend it with beer.

More than a year has passed since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that many popular Mexican candies kids enjoy contain lead and most of the students interviewed at Brownell Middle School said they still consume the snacks.

“Si, si,” Carlos Servantes, 13, shouted when asked if he eats Mexican candies such as Baby Lucas, during lunch at Brownell on Tuesday.

“Yeah, it’s good, I bought a whole pack of it,” said Omar Ruiz, 13.

When informed that lead can cause serious health problems, the students still weren’t interested in tossing the candy aside.

“You’re going to die happy,” said Ricardo Chavez, 13.

When the FDA released the report in 2004, the Gilroy Unified School District sent notices home to parents, in both Spanish and English, about the danger. District nurse Eileen Obata said if so many students are still eating the product, it would probably be a good idea to send another notice home.

The candies come in colorful, come-hither packaging and offer sweet and spicy flavors, such as Limon con chile. The Pixy Stix-like powders contained in mini shakers seem to be the most popular.

Stephanie Gomez has even concocted her own special recipe. The 11-year-old pulls the top off of the mini shakers, dips Jolly Rancher candies inside and tosses the treat in her mouth.

The students said they buy the treats from local convenience and Mexican stores and from the ice cream truck that roams around campus after school.

Ray Lopez, who drives the truck, denied selling the treats, claiming Santa Clara County had banned them.

But the truth is none of the candy is banned, county or state-wide.

Teresa Chagoya, spokesperson for the Santa Clara Public Health Department, said because there are inconsistencies in testing, it would be difficult to ban them all, even though many of the Mexican candies contain high levels of lead.

Some brands are tested and lead is found, however, sometimes when a separate batch of the same type is tested, the FDA will discover no lead, said Chagoya.

“So there’s no real consistent regulation on how they are produced and how much checking they are doing when they produce them,” she said. “We can’t say ‘don’t eat it,’ and we can’t say ‘do eat it.'”

When tests show that a child has high levels of lead, officials from county health will educate parents on the possible causes of lead poisoning. Lead can be found in the candy, on the wrapper, in the pottery containers where the concoctions are mixed and in some ethnic foods such as chapulines or dried grasshoppers.

Kids who test positive for lead poisoning could have been infected by a variety of sources including paint or dust from houses built before 1978, dirt or ethnic home remedies, Chagoya said.

Health officials even discovered that certain scrap-booking charms a retailer was selling in Santa Clara County contained lead. When the retailer was notified she immediately stopped selling them, Chagoya said.

High doses of lead are more dangerous to children or fetuses because they are still developing. Children can develop learning disabilities or become lethargic or inattentive after ingesting lead. Of course, the higher the level of lead, the worse the effects.

Cecelia McCormack noticed that many of her students were consuming the Mexican lead-laced treats so she decided to tie a lesson about the candy into her core curriculum. The Brownell science teacher noticed the candy seasoning containers say “sprinkle at 2 percent on snacks.”

McCormack assumes that companies dodge the lead accusations by suggesting consumers eat a fraction of the treat and claim it’s a seasoning. Since her students were studying measurements she asked them to pour the recommended serving of Limon con chile into their palms and to calculate how long it would take to eat the whole canister.

When the students figured out that it would take 50 days to eat the whole thing they were stunned.

“They said ‘Oh my gosh, we eat the whole canister (in a day),'” McCormack said. “They love it. It’s a seasoning but they eat it like candy.”

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