Higher lead levels allowed in food, supplements here

PHOTO: Higher lead levels allowed in food, supplements here

What it should have been: "Wednesday's report, "Higher lead levels allowed in food, supplements here", stated that United States regulators had found 16 parts per million of lead in a sample of Bo Ying compound provided by traditional Chinese medicine retailer Eu Yan Sang. The sample was, in fact, provided by the family of a child allegedly poisoned by the product.  We are sorry for the error."

Singapore regulations allow slightly higher lead levels in food and health supplements than those of some other countries.

The difference was brought to light last week after a health scare over lead levels contained in a popular traditional Chinese medicine.

The Bo Ying compound is sold by traditional Chinese medicine retailer Eu Yan Sang.

Singapore permits higher levels of lead in health supplements than the United States. For food ingredients, Singapore permits higher levels than, for instance, the European Union (EU).

Should people be concerned? No, says the Health Sciences Authority (HSA). Its spokesman told The Straits Times: "Although different jurisdictions have limits that vary relative to each other, the absolute difference between these limits is actually minimal, due to the scale of measurement in parts per million."

She explained that the lead limits for food are lower than for those in medicinal products, as "the intake of (these) is expected to be less than food".

When determining the acceptable limits of heavy metals such as lead in products, various factors, including the type of product, whether it is consumed and the amount used, are considered, added the spokesman.

Eu Yan Sang's Bo Ying compound, used to treat phlegm, vomiting, fevers, colds and coughs in young children, was flagged for lead poisoning risk by the US authorities on Sept 26.

The retailer defended itself last week, saying that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wrongly tested the compound as a food additive rather than a supplement.

US regulators had found 2.5 parts per million (ppm) of lead in a retail sample of Bo Ying compound, and 16 ppm in a sample provided by the family of a child allegedly poisoned by the product.

Heavy metals like lead are naturally occurring compounds present in the surrounding environment. According to the HSA, their ubiquitous nature means they may be found in trace quantities in many products.

Professor Ong Choon Nam, a toxicology expert at the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said that the US and EU tend to have stricter standards. But he added it does not mean Singapore's standards are unsafe.

The important thing is to keep up to date with the latest science, he said. "The science is evolving very rapidly. All countries should review their standards from time to time."

He suggested that the Government make its existing standards age-specific. Toddlers, for example, would tolerate a much lower dose of lead than an adult.

"Toxicity depends on the dosage and concentration. This has to be considered."

This article was first published on Oct 8, 2014.
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