Lead In Carrots Sparks Land Survey

THE VEGGIES were grown on an old apple orchard in Quincy, Grant County, where lead arsenate was once used as a pesticide; a hunt is now under way for similar orchard sites.

Lead-contaminated carrots traced back to a 70-acre farm in the Columbia Basin have prompted government agencies and food processors to look for contaminated land throughout the state.

The lead levels found in the carrots, which eventually were processed into bags of frozen mixed vegetables, weren't serious enough to prompt a government recall. Nor were there any reported illnesses linked to the carrots.

But the lead levels were high enough to prompt both federal and state agencies to search for other contaminated sites, particularly old apple orchards.

Lead arsenate was routinely used as a spray pesticide to control moths on fruit orchards more than 50 years ago. Its use diminished with the introduction of synthetic pesticides after 1949 and was banned for use on food crops in 1988.

Abundant research has been done on lead contamination and its effects. But the discovery of the frozen carrots apparently is the first time the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), doing routine food-safety tests, has made the connection between food grown on an old orchard site and the use of lead arsenate, said Alan Bennett, a spokesman with the agency's Portland office.

The discovery triggered the formation of a work group to examine whether other food is growing in contaminated soil, said

Denise La Flamme, a toxicologist with the state Department of Health.

The contaminated carrots were found last February, during a "marketbasket survey," in which the FDA buys common household groceries and tests the food for a variety of things, including heavy metals.

The frozen carrots were in a package of mixed vegetables bought in New Orleans, then traced to a private field near Quincy, Wash., in Grant County. The carrots were grown on cropland that had been an orchard before 1950.

When notified of the lead contamination, the food processor voluntarily withdrew the vegetables from the market, according to an FDA spokesman.

The lead levels found in the carrots didn't pose a health risk that warranted a recall, Bennett said. As a result, the agency declined to identify the food processor or to indicate how many carrots they think were contaminated.

The Washington Toxics Coalition, a public interest group, yesterday released documents obtained from the FDA through the Freedom of Information Act that said the Quincy carrots were sold for processing to J.R. Simplot, the vast Idaho-based food conglomerate. Most of the vegetables were delivered to Pillsbury, according to the FDA.

"This is a very clear lesson for Washington state agencies that if you put metals out there onto the fields, or other poisons, it's going to wind up in our food," said coalition analyst Laurie Valeriano. "This is very concerning."

The discovery of contamination in the carrots was made public last week as part of an FDA announcement about its broader study of Northwest cropland. Agency officials said the specific investigation into the Quincy field is continuing.

In the marketbasket survey that was traced back to Washington, the FDA also found contaminated carrots that had been grown in Michigan and used in two brands of Heinz baby food. The baby food also contained chicken, so came under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture; 300,000 jars were recalled last October.

Children are most susceptible to lead poisoning, which affects their central nervous system and can cause physical and mental retardation.

The leading source of lead exposure is lead-based paint in older, deteriorating houses. Lead particles also have been found in soil near major highways, emitted by past use of leaded gasoline, according to the FDA. And it occasionally has been found in drinking water and ceramics.

The Northwest Food Processors Association, which represents most of the food processors in the area, has notified its 70 members about the findings and is working on a set of recommendations, including soil testing, to prevent future contamination, said Craig Smith, a vice president with the group.

The FDA's work group includes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state departments of Health, Ecology and Agriculture. The study will focus on old orchard land that has been converted to vegetable production, residential gardens, truck farms or hobby farms.

Once contaminated sites, such as the Quincy field, are identified, the government may lack adequate laws to regulate a problem that originated more than a half-century ago.

The state Model Toxics Control act, for example, exempts the state from pursuing legal action against someone who used pesticides in the prescribed manner at the time.

"What it means is the tool we usually have doesn't fit well with the problem we face," said Jim Pendowski with the Department of Ecology.

Florangela Davila's phone message number is 206-464-2916. Her e-mail address is: fdavila@seattletimes.com