Number of Georgia children with lead poisoning rising - applesauce suspected

Recalled cinnamon applesauce pouches suspected cause of some children here found with dangerously high levels of lead

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect two more children reported with lead poisoning on Wednesday

Georgia Department of Public Health officials are working to determine whether eight Georgia children with elevated levels of lead in their blood are tied to an outbreak of lead poisoning linked to applesauce pouches marketed for children.

The eight Georgia children recently tested positive for high levels of lead in their blood, a public health spokesperson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The number rose overnight Tuesday from six children to eight. However, public health officials in Georgia have not yet confirmed the lead poisoning resulted from eating the recalled products.

Nationwide, the Food and Drug Administration has received 52 reports of high blood lead levels in children potentially linked to the recalled applesauce, according to the latest online update posted Nov 22. This is up from 34 cases the previous week, which included 22 states and children between the ages of 1 and 4.

The applesauce recalls, which began in late October, are for certain lots of the following products:

— WanaBana brand apple cinnamon fruit purée pouches (sold nationally)

— Schnucks brand cinnamon applesauce pouches (sold in Midwest states)

— Weis brand cinnamon applesauce pouches (sold in Mid-Atlantic states)

The Wanabana brand was sold nationwide and online. The other brands were sold at regional grocery stores.

The FDA said it has become aware that the recalled Wanabana brand cinnamon applesauce is still for sale in some Dollar Tree stores in multiple states and is working with the company to ensure all remaining products are removed.

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Lead is toxic to humans and can affect people of any age or health status, but children are particularly susceptible to lead toxicity. Even small amounts of lead poisoning can result in several long-term problems, including developmental disorders and brain damage. Lead is particularly dangerous to children because their growing bodies absorb more lead than adults do and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead.

The FDA is still not exactly sure how lead ended up in the applesauce but the FDA said its “leading hypothesis” is that cinnamon from a manufacturer in Ecuador used as flavoring is the likely source of contamination. The FDA said it is continuing to work with Ecuadorian authorities to investigate the source of the cinnamon.

The FDA said at this time there is no indication that cinnamon products other than the applesauce are affected but the FDA is screening incoming shipments of cinnamon from multiple countries for lead contamination.

WanaBana USA didn’t respond to questions by Tuesday afternoon but the FDA said the company is working to investigate the source of the contamination and is collaborating with the FDA in updating consumers with information related to the recall.

There’s no safe level of lead exposure, but the CDC uses a marker of 3.5 micrograms per deciliter to identify children with higher levels than most. An earlier report from the CDC on Nov. 13 said the affected children’s blood lead levels ranged from 4 to 29 micrograms per deciliter. A blood level of 29 micrograms per deciliter would be eight times higher than the level that raises concern, according to the CDC.

Georgia health officials didn’t share any more details on the children sickened in Georgia including where they live, their ages or blood lead levels.

DPH spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said the agency has sent staff lead inspectors to do home inspections, which include soil and paint tests to help determine the source of poisoning and rule out other potential sources.

None of eight Georgia families have any of the packets of applesauce they consumed available for testing, making a definitive confirmation unlikely, Nydam said.

Lead poisoning is very common. One in 40 children between the ages of 1 and 5 years of age have lead blood levels that are at or above 3.5 micrograms per deciliter, the threshold for elevated childhood levels. Previously, this threshold was set at 5 micrograms per deciliter, but the CDC lowered it to 3.5 micrograms per deciliter in 2021.

Lead became a major health topic in 2016 when the Flint, Michigan water supply was discovered to be contaminated with high levels of the heavy metal. Besides problems associated with drinking water from lead in old pipes and exposure to old paint in homes, lead has also tainted the soil in many areas across the country, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency records.

In December 2019, Georgia Health News, which is now operated by KFF Health News, in collaboration with the AJC broke the news that the EPA had found lead in the soil of residential yards at higher levels than what the agency considers safe. In westside Atlanta near Mercedes Benz Stadium, tests have shown almost 500 properties have lead levels higher than the threshold of 400 parts per million requiring removal. The cleanup is underway but will take years to complete — and the boundaries of the site were expanded as more neighboring properties tested high in lead.

Metals like lead, arsenic, and mercury get on plants through pollution in the air or water. Lead is commonly found in imported spices, candies, cosmetics or nutritional supplements.

Dr. Kevin C. Osterhoudt, pediatrician, and medical toxicologist said in a post on the American Academy of Pediatrics web site, healthychildren.org, that dust from lead house paint is still the biggest lead hazard for children in the U.S. While lead in house paint was federally banned in 1978, older homes might still contain the toxin and pose a risk, particularly to young children who can be easily poisoned by dust or by eating chips of lead paint.

Most children with high lead levels won’t look sick, and the only way to know for sure is through a blood test, he said. High blood lead levels can make it harder for kids to learn or to control their behavior. Larger amounts of lead can lead to headaches, irritability, constipation, crampy stomachaches or other problems.

There is no medicine that reverses the harm that has already occurred. 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.

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