Why it Matters

CEH’s work has helped to address the problem of lead in imported Mexican candy which has all but been eliminated. California health groups and regulators had long found high levels of lead in many types of candies imported from Mexico. Lead has been linked to a long list of health problems, including lowered intelligence, behavior problems, cancer, strokes, high blood pressure, kidney problems, anemia, cavities, and delayed puberty. It is well known that children are particularly susceptible to the effects of lead.

According to a 2004 investigation by the Orange County Register, chili peppers are dried outdoors in Mexico, where lead from gasoline and lead from factory emissions can deposit on the drying foods, resulting in high lead levels in candies. Glazes on pottery used by smaller candy producers may also contribute to the lead hazard. Also, some inks used on candy wrappers have been found to contain lead, resulting in contamination of the product.

But our work making candy safer wasn’t done. In 2012, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) identified plum candies, candied ginger, and licorice that were contaminated with lead in violation of California law.

What We Did and are Doing

In 2004, CEH began investigating high levels of lead in imported candies. That year, we joined the San Diego-based Environmental Health Coalition (EHC), along with the California Attorney General and other local officials in filing a lawsuit against more than thirty candy makers for leaded candies that violate state law.

In 2006, CEH and our allies reached a landmark legal agreement to ban lead in candy with the leading importers of Mexican candies, including Mars and Hershey. The agreement also required the companies to establish a fund to help smaller companies adopt practices and obtain access to equipment needed to eliminate lead hazards in their candies. Our legal settlement formed the basis of a 2005 California law to ban the sale of lead-tainted candies.

In 2018, our hard work paid off again. Two independent data sets, one from the California Department of Public Health (candy) and one from CEH, show significant declines in the prevalence of lead-containing products following our Prop 65 litigation. The proportion of chili and tamarind candies with hazardous lead content declined from 45% to 3% over a five year period. The problem of lead contamination, however, persisted in other types of candy. In response to the findings of lead in candy by CDPH in 2012, CEH initiated legal action against eight retailers and distributors of plum and ginger candies after independent testing found dangerous levels of lead in the products. Tests found fourteen varieties of the Asian candies, sold by major retailers and ethnic groceries, with levels of lead in excess of FDA and state limits. One of the candies had nearly 100 times more lead than the legal limit under California’s Proposition 65 consumer protection law. CDPH announced a voluntary recall of one plum candy variety; CEH then completed legal agreements with the candy companies that required significant reductions in lead content.

What You Can Do

Always purchase organic treats whenever possible and affordable. Parents can get information about lead in candy (in English and Spanish) from the Environmental Health Coalition. The California Department of Health also has online information about lead candy risks, including an updated list of recently recalled products.

  1. Organic, fruit-juice sweetened gummy chews: You can find these at any health food store or market.
  2. Fair Trade, organic chocolates: There are more and more fair-trade organic chocolate companies popping up every day, so you have more of a selection when choosing a chocolate of this caliber.
  3. Organic Lollipops colored with natural food dyes: lollipops that use natural food coloring from vegetable colors, like turmeric, annatto, and purple carrots, give the same brightly colored joy of standard lollipops, without all the nasty health threats like ADHD and behavioral problems linked to artificial food dyes. The Natural Candy Store offers a wide array of naturally colored pops.


CEH In the News: Oakland group finds lead in lots of plum, ginger candies
CEH In the News: Lead-tainted candy from Asia sold in Bay Area stores