Group Finds Lead In Kids' Drinks

fromKQED

A California environmental group found levels of lead in children's juice products that far exceed state law — and in some cases also exceed federal levels for young children. The group purchased apple juice, grape juice, canned peaches and pears, and fruit cocktails — all marketed for kids — and sent them to an EPA-certified lab for testing.

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A California environmental group has found amounts of lead in bottled juice, juice boxes and packaged fruit that exceed federal limits for young children.

Sarah Varney of member station KQED in San Francisco reports.

SARAH VARNEY: It's the kind of case test that parents dread. Over the last year, the Environmental Law Foundation, a nonprofit based in the Bay Area, purchased dozens of brands of juices and fruit products around California and sent them to an EPA-certified lab in Berkeley. And what they found was unsettling. Many individual servings of apple juice, grape juice, packaged peaches and pears and fruit cocktail - all lunchbox staples - contained lead above the daily limit for young kids. Those limits were established by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

David Schardt is a senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group that tracks food safety issues. Schardt reviewed the testing results for NPR.

Mr. DAVID SCHARDT (Science Director, Center for Science in the Public Interest): If someone is making unfortunate choices in the brands that they're buying and serving their children, this could be a cause of concern because they might be getting more lead than is healthy for them.

VARNEY: The tests were particularly troubling because the levels were calculated on a single serving, not the multiple juices and packaged fruits that an average five-year-old might consume in a given day. And there's no questioning the potency of the substance involved. Lead has long been known to cause physical and mental developmental problems.

Megan Schwarzman, a family physician and associate director of the Center for Green Chemistry at the University of California Berkeley, says children are especially vulnerable.

Dr. MEGAN SCHWARZMAN (Associate Director, Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry; Research Scientist, School of Public Health, University of California Berkeley): Their brain is not mature. Their nervous system is not mature. All of their organ systems are developing rapidly.

VARNEY: The products tested range from nationally recognized brands to more niche market favorites, but the results were troubling across the board. A single serving of Raley's private-labeled premium apple juice, Santa Cruz Organic Concord Grape Juice and Dole Pear Halves each contain levels of lead beyond what federal regulators consider safe.

In a written statement, the West Coast supermarket chain Raley's said the company was surprised by the lead levels since its suppliers and private brands routinely monitor their products, but the company says it has ordered independent tests to check for lead.

A spokesman for the J.M. Smucker Company, which owns Santa Cruz Organics, says the company did not have enough information to investigate the claims being made.

The environmental group says it undertook the testing to see if the kid-friendly juice and food products were complying with a California law that requires manufacturers to post safety warnings on products if they exceed lead levels set by state scientists.

The group has sent notices of suspected violations of state law to California's attorney general, Jerry Brown. The foundation's president, Jim Wheaton, says that such tests can go a long way toward changing company behavior.

Mr. JIM WHEATON (President, Environmental Law Foundation): Once pressed by things like California's law, people find ways to get the lead out and they reduce the exposure so they don't have to give a warning, and that's a good result.

VARNEY: All of this gives Schardt from the Center for Science in the Public Interest a glimmer of hope.

Mr. SCHARDT: If you look at the apple juice as if there are some manufacturers who managed to avoid the lead entirely. And it would be interesting to find out how they're managing to do that. Are they choosing different fruits, fruits from different farmers who have avoided lead contamination of their products? Or do their manufacturing processes, are they of such a kind that they avoid adding lead to the food that they're processing?

VARNEY: The FDA would not comment on the foundation's findings, though a spokesman confirmed that the federal limits for lead were last updated nearly two decades ago. In the meantime, many scientists, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, now say that there is no safe level of exposure to lead.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Varney.

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