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Saturday, April 24, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Student's project finds lead in food cans
By Dennis O'Brien
BALTIMORE Ilana Edelman had doubts about focusing her eighth-grade science project on whether food stores stocked lead-sealed cans.
After all, lead-sealed cans are a well-known health hazard. They were phased out of the U.S. food supply in the 1980s and prohibited by the federal government in 1995.
But she was intrigued by the possibilities: "I really wasn't sure what I would find. But I wanted to see," said Ilana, 13.
What she found surprised not only her but also a top food-safety expert at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the federal agency charged with keeping unadulterated foods off the nation's supermarket shelves.
Using a lead-testing kit purchased at a home-improvement store, Ilana determined that a grocery a small outlet catering to Russian immigrants in Pikesville, northwest of Baltimore was selling fish and condensed milk in prohibited lead-sealed cans. The Sun confirmed the results in tests conducted by a state-certified testing company firm.
"There shouldn't be any of it. It's illegal for any food to be sold that way in this country," said George Pauli, acting director of food-additive safety at the FDA.
Cans sealed with lead solder are supposed to be confiscated at U.S. borders. Lead-soldered cans have indentations on the side of the can, or crimped joints smeared with silver-gray solder, officials said.
But Pauli acknowledged that the FDA inspects only a small percentage of the food imported into the United States and that no one is sure how many lead cans might be on store shelves.
"I have no idea," Pauli said. "It should be none."
Ilana called the FDA's Baltimore office in January to alert them when she completed her project. But the agency initially took no action, and the same type of lead cans from Russian and Ukrainian canneries still were being sold weeks later. An FDA spokesman said last week the complaint would be investigated.
"This is the first I've heard about it," said Boriss Shklyar, who has operated the store for seven years. He pledged to take the cans off his shelves and instructed an assistant to begin removing them. He identified his supplier as LIR International, a food-import and distribution company in the Brooklyn borough of New York.
LIR sold about five cases of condensed milk to Shklyar about a year ago, after the milk arrived in pallets from a supplier based in the Ukraine, according to Aksana Straschnow, who runs the company. She said she had none of the product left and that she did not sell Shklyar any canned fish.
Experts say the increase in immigrant populations may mean a return of the problem. The U.S. foreign-born population jumped from 20 million in 1990 to 31 million in 2000, a 57 percent increase.
"Because of the cultural diversity of the U.S. population, people are eating all kinds of foods from all over the world," said Marc Edwards, an expert on lead corrosion at Virginia Tech.
But FDA is inspecting about 1 percent of the food imported into the United States, and most inspections are of foods considered a higher risk than canned goods for making people sick, such as fresh produce, seafood and dairy products, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food-safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Ilana, whose project won first prize in the biology division for middle schoolers in this year's Baltimore Science Fair, said the experience has left her wondering how many lead cans remain on shelves across the country.
"They really should be checking for this," she said.
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