By Ted Godshalk
With Halloween coming up later this month, children begin to dream of bags of candy, while a parent’s attention turns to the safety of their young trick-o’treaters. It wasn’t too long ago that parents began to worry about the candy that was dropped into the plastic jack-o-lantern or pillowcase. All Halloween candy was, quite simply, suspect. Scares, and not the shriek and boo kind, but instead the serious public health sort, began to crop up in the 70’s with razor blades in apples. Later, tampered-with Tylenol taught us about the vulnerability of common shelf items. Today candy is back in the headlines, and the threat to our children’s health is more hair-raising than ever.
Unfortunately, it is not only at this time of year that candy eaters must be wary. The most harmful candy out there is available 365 days of the year. I am speaking of chili and tamarind candies imported from Mexico. Ten years ago, it was discovered that these popular candies contained high levels of lead. Lead is a natural occurring metal, which is very toxic when eaten. We know that the lead in chili and tamarind candy comes from dirt on the chilis, from the ollas (clay pots) used for manufacturing, and from wrapper inks. For decades, we have been warned about the lead in house paint, and in fact, lead in paint for residential uses was outlawed in 1978. This was followed with a conversion to unleaded gasoline for vehicles in the United States. But incredibly, something as common as candy, while it can pose similar serious health threats, is not regulated. Some people in National City are doing something about this.
Lead poisoning in a child is hard to identify, ghostly in its appearance and horrific in its effects. Significant damage to a child’s mental development, weakened muscles, stunted growth and behavior problems are some of the known effects. In cases of lead poisoning reported in California in 2002, more than 15% were tied to candy. Leticia Ayala, director of the Campaign to Eliminate Childhood Lead Poisoning states, “We have a feeling the risks of lead poisoning are underestimated.” Ayala, based at National City’s Environmental Health Coalition, along with her highly trained crew of promotoras (activists) has been waging the battle to get the lead out for four years. National City’s children are at high risk due to the proximity to the border and the high number of commercial outlets in town that carry these toxic treats. Mom and Pop markets, Walmart and large grocery stores, 99 cent stores, ice cream trucks, and even PTA fundraiser sales have all sold these chili and tamarind candies. This week this scary issue comes to the door of the Governor. When the trick-o’treaters knock, the question will be whether he will be a bogeyman or a hero.
On the Governor’s desk awaiting his signature, sits State Assembly bill AB121. Introduced by Assemblyman Juan Vargas, and passed by the Assembly and the State Senate, this bill will provide for the testing of candies sold in California. Chili and tamarind candies found with high lead content will then be removed from the shelves and banned from sale.
The goodies in a child’s trick-o-treat bag should not turn him/her into a zombie from the Night of the Living Dead. Seriously, our children must be protected. This year, check carefully the candy that your child eats and don’t be part of the problem by handing out toxic treats like Chaca Chaca and Lucas Limon. It is time for the Governor to help parents make this Halloween and every other day, safer. AB 121 guarantees this, and for National City’s costumed candy lovers, the Governor should sign the bill.
Ted Godshalk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org