October 26, 2001

Local Group Warns Dulces Equal Disaster: Some Mexican Candy Poisoned With Lead

By Yvette tenBerge

Strings of blinking, orange lights, plastic pumpkins filled with treats and booths manned by costumed health care workers served as the backdrop for this year's Community Health and Information Fair, held at National City's Kimball Senior Center at 1221 D Avenue. Nestled between displays about stroke prevention and blood pressure screening was an unusual booth that warned passersby of the possibility of contracting lead poisoning from three types of candy manufactured by the Mexican company Dulmex.

This week is National Lead Poisoning Awareness Week, and with Halloween just around the corner, Leticia Ayala, Lead Prevention Project Coordinator for the Environmental Health Coalition (EHC), donned her lab coat and her "Dr. Leadbuster" nametag to encourage local senior citizens to steer clear of the popular Dulmex brand bolirindo lollipops, coconut rolls and tamarindo rolls. This task is not as easy as it may seem, seeing that most of the people who spotted the soft, dark brown fruit candy in her display uttered comments such as, "I eat these all of the time," and asked questions like,"Can I buy these from you?"

Leticia Ayala explains the danges of lead poisoning.

Most large businesses stopped carrying these three types of candy after the California Department of Health Services issued an April 26 press release that warned consumers to avoid eating Dulmex brand tamarind candy lollipops because the "product and its wrapper contain excessively high levels of lead."

Ms. Ayala and a group of eight women from National City and Sherman Heights did not stop at simply warning potential customers about the dangers, though. They banded together and scoured neighborhood grocery stores and mom and pop-style markets to make sure that all small business owners were aware of the hazards that these lead-soaked candies posed to the community. They also took it upon themselves to collect other types of candy that they felt might contain dangerous levels of lead. They forwarded a box of these samples to the state department for testing.

"Out of the batch of candies that we mailed to the California Department of Health Services, four of these candies tested very high for lead," says Ms. Ayala, breathless after just having heard the news of the state department's discovery. As a result of these findings, Ms. Ayala and her team are warning customers to use caution when eating the following Mexican candies: Tama Roca, Serpentina, Chaca Chaca de Dulce and Tablarindo.

A crowd gathers around the table as Ms. Ayala explains how these popular sweets become tainted. "The paint on these wrappers is lead based, and there are two ways in which people can be exposed. Little kids handling the product often touch their mouths with their hands. Also, the candy, itself, is acidic which causes the lead to leech out into the candy," says Ms. Ayala. As people thumb through pamphlets, she goes on to add that Dulmex is currently undergoing studies to determine if the manufacturing process contributes to the poisoning, as well. "Some of this candy is made in clay pots, and the glaze used on these pots contains lead. In some cases, the candy is also made near machines that are fueled by diesel."

The bolirindo candy is a soft, dark brown, tamarind fruit lollipop on a white or orange-striped stick. The orange-red wrapper sports the title "BOLIRINDO" in white lettering and a picture of a brown tamarind fruit. It is this wrapper that contains orange red colored lead oxide pigment and that may contaminate the candy lollipops or the sticks.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that children under the age of six should consume an average of no more that 6.0 micrograms of lead each day from all food sources. According to EHC calculations, the lead in one piece of candy, alone, exceeds this amount.

Lead poisoning is the number one environmental health threat to children under six years of age. It can cause damage to the central nervous system, resulting in reduced IQ, learning disabilities, behavior problems, hyperactivity and increased aggression.

According to data provided by the EHC, childhood lead poisoning is also considered to be the most preventable environmental disease of those affecting young children. Despite this fact, almost one million children have elevated blood lead levels. Thanks to the efforts of Ms. Ayala and her team, these numbers may be a little lower this year.

For more information about lead poisoning call the Environmental Health Coalition at (619) 235-0281.

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