About four months after WanaBana announced a nationwide recall of its cinnamon applesauce pouches, parents of lead-poisoned children say they’re still living in constant fear of the potential long-term health issues that could develop in their young ones.

Alyssa Magnuson, 29, from Braham, Minnesota, was in “disbelief and shock” when a routine blood test last fall revealed that her then-11-month-old daughter’s blood lead levels were 23.4 micrograms of lead per deciliter, far higher than what’s seen in most children.

“I literally didn’t think there was any possible way lead could have gotten into her system,” Magnuson said. 

It wasn’t until a week later that she learned about the WanaBana recall. Magnuson had bought the applesauce pouches from a Dollar Tree store, something she said other people judged her for at the time.

happy mom daughter baby table snack baby bottle
Alyssa Magnuson, 29, with 18-month-old daughter, Stevie.Courtesy Alyssa Magnuson

Magnuson said that her daughter, Stevie, began acting fussy around the time she started eating the applesauce, something Magnuson now attributes to lead exposure. 

“Now that her lead levels are lower, she’s acting entirely differently,” she said. 

But the worry and guilt haven’t gone away.

“It’s always going to be a thing,” Magnuson said. “If something’s wrong with her when she’s older, I’m gonna wonder if it’s that.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said that the WanaBana contamination is “absolutely outrageous” and has renewed her call on the Food and Drug Administration to take action on heavy metals in foods for babies and young children.

“This is heavy metals that are ingested by toddlers, by little kids,” Klobuchar said in an interview. “You think you’re safe when you use a cinnamon-flavored applesauce pack. And it turns out, you’re basically giving your child poisons.”

She plans to introduce a bill that would call for inspections on food imports meant for babies and young children and said that going forward, there need to be changes to laws that have restricted the FDA from taking action against foreign food manufacturers that don’t meet the agency’s standards for safety.

A spokesperson for the FDA said the agency “takes seriously its responsibility to ensure the safety of the foods made available to U.S. consumers.”

“The agency continues to use all available authorities and work closely with international partners to safeguard the complex, global food supply chain,” the spokesperson said.

No safe levels of lead

WanaBana announced a recall of its apple cinnamon pouches in late October, after detecting elevated lead levels in the children’s food. The following month, in November, the recall was expanded to include two other products made by the company: the supermarket brands Schnucks applesauce pouches with cinnamon and Weis cinnamon applesauce. 

As of Feb. 23, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has received 468 confirmed, probable and suspected reports of elevated blood lead levels linked to the pouches across 44 states.

The FDA, which is investigating the source of the lead, said it has identified cinnamon as the likely source of contamination, tracing it back to a single cinnamon processor in Ecuador. WanaBana did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

There is no known safe blood lead level in children, said Dr. Laura Breeher, an occupational and environmental medicine physician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. The CDC uses a level of 3.5 micrograms per deciliter to identify kids with higher blood lead levels than most.

Lead exposure can cause a large variety of symptoms, Breeher said, including:

  • Irritability
  • Abdominal pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue

It can also cause damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and issues with hearing and speech, and lower IQ, according to the CDC. How long — and how much — lead exposure it takes before a child develops these issues is still an open question. 

Breeher said some children may show no symptoms, underscoring the importance of parents getting their children’s blood lead levels tested. Some may not develop symptoms until much later, she said. 

‘I feel terrible that I fed that to my son’

Sarah Callahan and her son Rudy.
Sarah Callahan and her son Rudy.Courtesy Sarah Callahan

Sarah Callahan, 39, of Port Republic, Maryland, said doctors told her that her 18-month-old son, Rudy, is showing signs of a speech delay.

Callahan said she had no idea Rudy had been exposed to lead until a blood test last fall during his one-year check-up. His blood lead levels were 19.8 micrograms of lead per deciliter. He had been eating the WanaBana pouches since the spring.

As of early February, Callahan said that Rudy’s blood lead levels are trending downward, now at 5.7 micrograms. Callahan said she worries about the possibility of his levels spiking again or another health issue emerging.

“With his lead poisoning, it’s just like, his development at any point could stop or be delayed because of it,” said Callahan, who filed a lawsuit against WanaBana USA in November. “It’s always a worry, always a fear. But we’re trying to live in the present and just take one day at a time.”

Courtney Akin, 30, of Folkston, Georgia, has also noticed signs of a speech delay in her 18-month-old son, Jaxson.

Akin first purchased WanaBana applesauce pouches from a Dollar Tree store in July. In September, a test revealed Jaxson’s blood lead levels were 5.2 micrograms of lead per deciliter. (A spokesperson for Dollar Tree has previously said the retailer has since removed the product from its shelves and locked registers to prevent sales.)

mother son smile happy
Courtney Akin, 30, of Folkston, Ga., with her 18-month-old son, Jaxson.Courtesy Courtney Akin

It wasn’t until the recall, however, that Akin realized Jaxson’s elevated blood levels could be linked to the applesauce and she removed them from his diet. She still feels an immense amount of guilt about feeding her son the pouches and remains concerned about health issues in the future. 

“It’s very scary,” Akin said. “Working as hard as I did nursing him that long, and then I go and purchase lead pouches. I feel terrible that I fed that to my son.”

Not all parents have noticed symptoms in their children.

Mariah Piazza, 27, of Tonawanda, New York, said her 1-year-old son, Caiden, appears to be doing well after he stopped eating the applesauce pouches.

Caiden had been eating the cinnamon applesauce pouches almost every day for about a month. Last March, a blood test revealed that Caiden had a blood lead level of 13 micrograms per deciliter.

He’s since had several lead tests done and they’ve come back undetectable for lead, she said.

Others have noticed physical symptoms.

mother child apple sauce
Arielle Tevault, 26, of Indianapolis, with 3-year-old son Asher.Courtesy Arielle Tevault

Arielle Tevault, 26, of Indianapolis, Indiana, said her 3-year-old son Asher started looking pale and developed dark circles around his eyes around the time he started eating the WanaBana pouches early last year. The dark circles, Tevault said, still haven’t gone away, even several months after he stopped eating them. 

“He just looks sick,” said Tevault. 

Asher’s blood level levels were at 4.9 micrograms of lead per deciliter in early November, she said, but have since gone down.

Still, Tevault said she’s worried about potential neurological problems. “Theoretically, there could be long-term effects that develop over time,” she said.

She expressed frustration over WanaBana’s marketing of the cinnamon applesauce, which was labeled as gluten and sugar-free and without artificial flavors.

“What do you do as a parent, as a young parent in 2024? The world is falling apart. You can’t even trust the food in stores,” she said. 

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