Children When Cora Dibert underwent a standard blood test in October, she brought her preferred new snack—a WanaBana cinnamon-flavoured apple puree squeeze pouch.
“She consumed them completely,” remembers Morgan Shurtleff, her 26-year-old mother from Elgin, Oklahoma.
A week later, the family received a concerning call.
The results revealed that the 1-year-old had lead poisoning, registering almost four times the level of concern. Only later, Shurtleff discovered the possible culprit: the fruit puree purchased at a Dollar Tree store by Cora’s grandmother.
Shurtleff expresses, “It was the most frightening experience of my life.
Cora is one of many young children in the United States who have suffered lead poisoning connected to contaminated pouches of cinnamon and fruit puree.
The precise count of affected children remains uncertain. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 205 confirmed, probable, or suspected cases are across 33 states.
However, the Food and Drug Administration, employing a different reporting approach, acknowledges at least 69 children aged six and younger who have fallen ill in 28 states as of December 14.
Examinations indicate that individuals affected had blood lead levels reaching up to eight times the federal reference level of concern, as per health officials.
Analyses of the puree samples revealed lead contamination exceeding more than 200 times the limit permitted by the FDA.
The pouches were marketed under three brands—WanaBana, Schnucks, and Weis. According to officials, these items were manufactured at a facility in Ecuador and initially brought into the U.S. in November 2022.
According to the agency, examinations of cinnamon samples provided to the factory revealed lead levels described as “extremely high”—exceeding 2,000 times the proposed maximum limit by the FDA.
FDA authorities have suggested the possibility that the contamination might have been deliberate. One theory is that the cinnamon was tainted for economic motives, the agency stated.
This implies that an ingredient such as lead could have been deliberately introduced to enhance the value of the cinnamon.
Karen Everstine, the technical director for Food chain ID, a company specializing in tracking food supply chains, noted that spices like turmeric, cinnamon, and paprika had been previously identified as being mixed with lead chromate or lead oxide—compounds that mimic the colours of these spices.
Everstine emphasized, “The intention is not to make people sick. Nobody wants to do that because then they get caught.
What they want to do is make money.”
Shurtleff is incensed by this possibility. If it turns out to be accurate, she remarked, “They made my child sick for a dime. The more I think about it, the angrier I get.”
Simultaneously, Shurtleff and other parents express their most significant apprehension about the enduring impact on their children.
“I’m quite concerned, especially given that the effects are irreversible,” noted Shurtleff, a nurse.
Dr. Jennifer Sample, a pediatric toxicologist who consults for industry and academics, emphasized that no level of lead exposure is safe for children.
The impacts on brain development may manifest years later.
“It’s irritability. It’s behavioral concerns. It’s learning difficulties,” she explained.
When children ingest lead, the heavy metal circulates through the bloodstream and reaches various organs, including the brain, as explained by Sample. Once in the brain, the tip displaces essential nutrients like calcium and iron within cells, resulting in irreversible damage.
Early detection and dietary adjustments may mitigate the harm because children’s brains are adaptable and developing. Nonetheless, these children will probably require years of monitoring and intervention.
The effects on the brain at the cellular level are irreversible, but the subsequent effects can be mitigated,” stated Sample.
Chelation, a therapy employing drugs that bind to metals in the blood to eliminate them from the body, can be used to treat lead poisoning. However, it is typically reserved for higher lead levels and proves challenging to administer to very young individuals.
Instead, children affected by lead poisoning should consume a diet rich in vitamin D, calcium, and iron and be provided with a stimulating environment that promotes brain development.
The outlook is disheartening for families whose children have fallen ill.
Mustafa Al-Khaled, a civil engineer from Norfolk, Nebraska, filed a lawsuit against WanaBana LLC because his 17-month-old son, Arian, was diagnosed with acute lead poisoning after regularly consuming the pouches since August.
As a parent, finding ourselves in this situation is truly distressing,” expressed Al-Khaled, one of around a dozen parents of affected children who reached out to Ron Simon, a food-safety lawyer in Houston, to file the case. “I’m here to safeguard this child.”
In early November, alarmed by the recall of WanaBana products, Mustafa Al-Khaled and his wife, Dania, promptly took Arian for testing. Their concerns deepened as Arian had been experiencing uncontrollable crying, weight loss, and passing white-coloured stool.
A test showed that the boy’s blood lead level was 15.3 micrograms of lead per deciliter. That’s more than four times higher than the 3.5 micrograms per deciliter that the CDC uses to identify children with elevated lead levels.
Health officials in Nebraska obtained samples of the WanaBana pouches from Al-Khaled’s residence, and the results of the tests are still pending.
“We’re genuinely concerned about the future,” Al-Khaled expressed. “Will this harm him later on?”
Talia Hurdle, 29, from Mount Vernon, New York, shares the same concern. She revealed that her 18-month-old son, Jamari, consumed WanaBana apple cinnamon pouches two or three times a day for several months.
“He’s a picky eater,” she explained, “and the pouches, which sold at the Dollar Tree for $1.25 for a pack of three, were an affordable way to provide him with food he enjoyed. Jamari’s blood level was 17.5 micrograms when initially tested in September.
“It’s disheartening because you give your baby things to help them stay healthy, but look at what happened,” Hurdle lamented.
A few weeks after Jamari ceased consuming the puree, his lead level decreased to 10.5 micrograms per deciliter. Similar declines in levels were observed for Cora Shurtleff and Arian Al-Khaled after they discontinued the pouches.
According to Sample, the toxicologist, this is an encouraging sign.
These parents can now exhale a sigh of relief knowing that the harm may not be as severe as it could have been with prolonged exposure,” she stated.
Shurtleff is concerned that not all families are aware of the danger.
The FDA reported that some Dollar Tree stores continue to stock the fruit pouches on their shelves, even weeks after the recall. In response, Dollar Tree Inc.
officials mentioned in a statement that they have implemented register locks to prevent sales of the products, directed stores to discard the affected packages, and are collaborating with a third party to ensure their removal from shelves.
Following Cora’s diagnosis, Shurtleff, while at work preparing to administer a vaccination, noticed that her young patient was consuming a WanaBana apple cinnamon pouch. Without hesitation, she informed the parent about the recall.
“They were just in shock. They hadn’t heard anything about it,” Shurtleff recounted. “Then they were like, ‘We still have some in our pantry. Let’s throw it out.