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QUESTION: RE: lead-tainted chocolate & the sources of lead being found in cacao as a result of processing? 03/09/09 Cote d'Ivoire / Ivory Coast

I have been quite impressed by the information on your site regarding lead poisoning.

I am writing to you to see if you could point me to information regarding lead being found in cacao as a result of processing in countries where leaded gasoline is still in use.

In particular, do you know if the Ivory Coast has banned the use of leaded gasoline, as much of exported cacao comes from this African country.


ANSWER: Sep 3 2009

Dear William,

according to the United Nations Environment Program's (UNEP) Partnership for Cleaner Fuels and Vehicles (PCFV), now on The LEAD group site  [ - the Cote d'Ivoire "phased out [leaded gasoline] in January 2005 with refinery producing only unleaded."

So unless you keep your chocolate in the cupboard for a long time before eating it (which would make you abnormal!) there is unlikely to be any lead from gasoline direct from vehicle emissions (air pollution fallout on the fermentation and sun-dried cocoa beans) in chocolate made from cacao from the Ivory Coast being eaten today. However the gasoline-sourced lead could be falling into the process from a contaminated storage place such as ceiling void dust (if cacao processing plants HAVE ceiling voids) or falling onto the beans during sun-drying if this is done outside and lead dust from soil can fall onto the process.

It is my belief that it is folly to assume that the only source of lead in food processing is from gasoline.

I noticed on a TV documentary program made in South America about coffee bean processing, that all the machinery at the coffee bean picking farms and at the coffee bean drying and processing factory was painted with yellow paint which was badly chipped. It would be a safe assumption that such machinery yellow paint was a highly leaded industrial paint - certainly the regulations limiting the lead content of industrial paint even in Australia don't kick in until 2010, so similar regulations in countries which grow cacao (or coffee) could be decades away.

And even then, the Australian regulations / most regulations are not retrospective so the lead paint in all industrial, farm machinery, food processing, etc applications will not be required to be removed just because new paint for these applications has a lead limit - only regulations specifically requiring that lead paint be stripped and replaced with paint which has not had any lead added to it, will actually fix the problem of lead from machinery paint getting into food.

I notice that Wikipedia states:

"Recent studies have shown that although the beans themselves absorb little lead, it tends to bind to cocoa shells and contamination may occur during the manufacturing process. A recent peer-reviewed publication found significant amounts of lead in chocolate.

"Charley W. Rankin, Jerome O. Nriagu, Jugdeep K. Aggarwal, Toyin A. Arowolo, Kola Adebayo, and A. Russell Flegal. "Lead contamination in cocoa and cocoa products: isotopic evidence of global contamination (Abstract)". Environ Health Perspect. 2005 October; 113(10): 13441348. Published online 2005 May 26.

The above reference further states:

"the much higher lead concentrations and larger variability in lead isotopic composition of finished cocoa products, which falls within the global range of industrial lead aerosols, indicate that most contamination occurs during shipping and/or processing of the cocoa beans and the manufacture of cocoa and chocolate products."

The full article link above (and also attached) and states:

"most lead contamination in those products [manufactured cocoa and chocolate products ] occurs after the beans are harvested and dried, during the shipping of those beans and/or the manufacturing of cocoa and chocolate products."

If lead from gasoline is responsible for most of the lead contamination in chocolate, then the lead levels should have been falling ever since the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa phased out leaded gasoline in 2006. It will be interesting to compare more recent lead levels from market basket surveys, in case there really is still a major source that has not been dealt with.

Thanks for your interesting and thoughtful inquiry.

Yours Sincerely

Elizabeth O'Brien

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