Number of people in Georgia poisoned by lead in tainted applesauce grows

Georgia now has 20 confirmed or suspected cases of lead poisoning as FDA reveals the food was also contaminated with chromium

The number of people in Georgia suffering from lead poisoning linked to recalled applesauce pouches continues to grow and now includes 10 confirmed cases, according to the latest figures Friday from the Georgia Department of Public Health.

DPH spokeswoman Nancy Nydam told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that there are also eight probable and two suspected cases. The recalled pouches — sold under three brands: WanaBana, Schnucks and Weis — have been linked to 287 illnesses in the U.S., primarily in children, according to the latest information available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a new twist to the ongoing investigation, the Food and Drug Administration reported Friday they have also found high levels of chromium in their testing of the recalled products. Chromium is a naturally occurring element that is also an important trace nutrient, however some forms can be toxic. People who ate the recalled products, especially if they had elevated blood lead levels, may have been exposed to chromium and should inform their health care provider so they can be monitored for symptoms.

Georgia health officials did not share any more details on people sickened in Georgia, including where they live, their ages or blood lead levels.

Nydam said the Georgia agency sent lead inspectors to do home inspections for the suspected lead poisoning cases here. Soil and paint tests are needed to rule out other potential sources before a case can be confirmed. Cases of poisoning linked to the recalled applesauce are confirmed when a person has an elevated blood level of lead within three months after consuming the product and health investigators find no other significant sources of lead exposure in their environment.

Cases of lead poisoning began appearing in late October. By late December, U.S. food inspectors had found “extremely high” levels of lead in cinnamon at a plant in Ecuador that made the applesauce pouches tainted with the metal, according to the Food and Drug Administration said.

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Cinnamon tested from the plant had lead levels more than 2,000 times higher than the maximum level proposed by the FDA, officials said.

There’s no safe level of lead exposure, and lead is particularly dangerous to children because their growing bodies absorb more lead than adults and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead.

The FDA advises parents whose children may have eaten the recalled products to watch for symptoms of exposure to either lead or chromium. Symptoms of lead toxicity include headache; abdominal pain or colic; vomiting and anemia. Longer-term exposure could result in behavioral changes such as irritability; lethargy; difficulty concentrating, fatigue and weight loss. Symptoms of chromium exposure may be nonspecific, according to the FDA. Consuming a high level of chromium exceeding dietary recommendations may result in abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and anemia, among other effects.

The FDA continues to investigate how the cinnamon was contaminated. Jim Jones, who heads the agency’s human foods program, said in a recent interview with Politico that the contamination appeared to be “an intentional act.”

One theory is that the cinnamon may have been contaminated for economic reasons, agency officials said. That could mean an ingredient is added or subtracted from a food to to boost its value. For example, compounds like red brick, red lead salt, lead oxide and lead chromate, which mirror cinnamon’s red color, have been added to increase the value of the spice by adding color and weight, research shows.

The samples tested by officials came from ground or powdered cinnamon from Negasmart, an Ecuadorian company that supplied the spice to Austrofoods, which made the pouches.

FDA officials said they “cannot take direct action” with Negasmart and are relying on officials in Ecuador for the investigation into the company’s actions. Negasmart does not ship product directly to the U.S. and of Negasmart’s customers, only Austrofoods shipped foods to the U.S., the agency said.

While the CDC is reporting 287 people have been sickened by the applesauce, the Food and Drug Administration has used a different method of counting the cases and reports 82 people — mostly young children — have been sickened as of Tuesday.

Tests show children who ate the pouches had blood lead readings up to eight times higher than the reference level that sparks concern, health officials said. Samples of the apple puree showed lead contamination more than 200 times higher than the FDA allows, officials said.

Dr. Hugo Scornik, a local pediatrician and former president of the Georgia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said if a child ate one of the recalled products, they should contact their pediatrician for a blood test.

The CDC said most local health departments can also test for lead in the blood. Many private insurance policies cover the cost of testing for lead in the blood, according to the CDC. The cost of blood lead testing for children enrolled in Medicaid is covered by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. AstroFood said it will reimburse customers up to $150 for lead tests.

There is no medicine that reverses the harm that has already occurred from lead poisoning and there is no specific antidote to treat chromium exposure. A chemical process called chelation therapy helps remove heavy metals like lead from the blood, but the therapy has serious side effects that could potentially be life-threatening. Doctors only use chelation for very high blood lead levels.

The Associated Press contributed to this article. The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.