Published: Wednesday, June 15, 2022
(But I’ve been meaning to write this one for a while now!)
First, please take a look at the photos below. This is what happened to my son (who was 16 years old at the time these photos were taken) after he had ONE SIP of his friend’s light pink bubble tea. These photos were taken in the hospital. We have many more photos (of every part of his body from that day) but these are the ones he was comfortable with me sharing here on my website. Every single part of his body was impacted. Every. Part. This was a terrifying incident — in which we were worried that the acute systemic allergic reaction could possibly impact his airways/ability to breathe. This is just one of many, many incidents in which he had a reaction to food dye, but this was the first time it happened when he had an “adult-sized” body. We had — mistakenly — thought, up to this point, that perhaps he had “grown out” of this allergy. We were wrong — and this time (subsequent times too) the reaction was verging on life-threatening. As a result of this incident, he was given a prescription for two Epi-pens. Continue reading below the images.
The photo below is the front of his torso — showing his left side — when things had begun to subside.
The photo below is the top of his right thigh — this area and around his groin were particularly affected.
Here’s the story…
As a “natural-minded”/ “crunchy”/ “organic” mama, I never (intentionally) let any of my kiddos have any food dye. But as a human living in modern society, it slips through the cracks every now and then — in spite of my vigilance.
Over 20 years ago, when my eldest son was little, we held a post-Halloween ritual — in which we would go through all of the candy, and if it had nasty stuff like “hydrogenated hoodoo” (our sons’ name for Hydrogenated oils), or corn syrup, or artificial food dyes, we would unwrap it and flush it down the toilet! Usually that would leave us with just chocolate and a few other odds and ends (as this was before I knew that chocolate was one of the food items with the highest Lead levels! [more on that here]).
After my children were acutely Lead-poisoned (in August of 2005) and were violently ill as a result of their exposure, I became even more strict about food dyes (making sure they didn’t eat things like birthday cakes/cupcakes at people’s houses/school if there were any question of dyes in the frosting and that sort of thing). I knew food dyes were “bad” — but I didn’t know exactly how bad they could be! Early on (shortly after the boys were poisoned), one of the kiddos had an incident with M&M’s, and then the other had an incident with popsicles (we quickly figured out that one was obviously reacting to red food dye, while the other was hyper-sensitive to yellow food dye!). Each incident resulted in pretty big hives — especially considering both kids’ relatively tiny sizes at that time!
When this seemed to happen
One thing I began to notice with these exposures (and reactions) is that they were more likely to happen if the children were already “compromised” or sick (like if they had a cold coming on, or a fever, and then accidentally ingested some food dye they would be more likely to have a big reaction). This became an especially challenging thing to deal with upon that realization — as almost EVERY childhood medication is “color-coded”/marketing-branded through the use of food dyes(!) — so we had to start making sure to have dye-free medications (Advil, Benadryl, etc.) on-hand for emergencies (and when traveling) because we couldn’t risk the kiddos having a reaction to the medication that we were using to treat them for an illness!
The first big incident was with A.J. and facepaint, the Halloween after he was poisoned.
Halloween 2005 was the first major incident. It was about two and a half months after the boys were Lead-poisoned, and I think we painted A.J.‘s face with clown makeup for one of his pre-school Halloween parties (it wasn’t for the main trick-or-treat night because he was Harpo Marx that year if I recall correctly!). There were red cheeks, a red mouth, and probably a red star or heart here and there for accents — I pride myself on my face-painting skills (and have done more than my share of volunteer face-painting at festivals, fairs, and birthday parties over the years)!
After school (he went in the mornings from 9 to 1-ish, if I recall correctly), we brought him home and washed the face paint off (gently, using a skin-friendly lotion, as I normally do). After all the paint had been thoroughly removed, there were red marks all over his face. At first, we thought they were just marks/stains somehow left-behind from the paint, but then I realized they were actually swollen welts everywhere the red paint had been (and extending beyond the areas with the red paint by a bit in each spot)! That was the first time I realized we really had a problem.
Avi and the popsicles … a couple of years later.
After he was Lead-poisoned, until he was about 5 or 6 years old, Avi used to get febrile seizures on the regular. His body couldn’t regulate temperatures in response to illness and it was actually quite terrifying! Whenever he got even a tiny bit sick, his fever would spike to 104 or 105 degrees, and we would have to rush him to the hospital!
When he was about three years old, he was having a seizure and we (by this point) were “seasoned veterans,” and knew all the tips and tricks we should try at home before bringing him to the hospital. One of these tricks was to feed him ‘papa-cicles” (our kids’ word for popsicles — not to be confused with “mama-cicles,” our kids’ word for motorcycles at the time!). We had a specific brand of popsicle we would get at the local natural foods store in emergencies when he was sick. This brand was pretty “clean” — it had no corn syrup, and no artificial dyes. It was primarily frozen fruit juice, although it did have some cane sugar. My color-blind husband KNEW what the brand was; he KNEW what the box looked like (by the shape and size of the packaging, and by the photo on the box — because we had bought it many times before), so when he went to the store (just before closing at 10 or 11 at night) he grabbed the box, bought it, rushed home, put the box in the freezer, grabbed a yellow popsicle out of the box and brought it into the bedroom where I was cradling and soothing Avi with a cool washcloth on his head. Avi ate the popsicle … within a few minutes there were ginormous hives ALL over his body (a potentially life-threatening acute systemic allergic reaction)!
We couldn’t figure out what was going on (we gave him some dye-free Benadryl to try to bring down the swelling) and then I asked my husband to show me the popsicle box. It wasn’t the right popsicles! Apparently, since the last time we had bought them, the company came out with a new type of popsicle (same box, same branding, similar image, just slightly-different color scheme on the box), and that new type had different flavors — some of which had food dyes! So unbeknownst to us, we had given Avi a yellow popsicle that had yellow food dye and he swelled up like a balloon! Lesson learned: always carefully check the ingredients on the box EVEN IF YOU THINK YOU KNOW THE PRODUCT! So many food and personal-care products change their “natural” formulations after being bought out by larger companies (and I believe that is what happened in this case).
My older son didn’t think this was still a problem — this was just a story from when he was a kid, and he had outgrown it…
“Unfortunately” (fortunately?), as my kiddos aged we were so strict about food dye that we never had this problem after we hit the tweens and teen years. Accordingly, they actually didn’t remember these experiences (from when they were very young) — only what they had heard us tell them about it … so it would make sense they didn’t consider it a “real” threat. I think the kids thought of it more as “family lore” by then, vs. something they needed to be responsible for for the rest of their lives! So on the day these photos were taken, my son was “a bit under the weather” and had a sip of his friend’s pink bubble tea — he didn’t even consider that the pink bubble tea had red dye and might be an issue (he had gotten bubble tea before when he wasn’t sick and hadn’t had any reaction, and he wasn’t thinking about the food dye considerations). He called me from his friend’s house, and then immediately came home — that’s when we rushed him to the hospital.
During that hospital visit, we received a prescription for an Epi-pen. He was given two to have for emergencies.
We have not been able to get this prescription renewed, because of our broken healthcare system (the prescription originated at a hospital Emergency Room, and so — years later — no one there will renew it, plus he’s too old to see his West Coast pediatric doctor now, and the practice says they can’t renew the potentially life-saving emergency prescription as “he is not a current patient” and his East Coast college medical system says they can’t prescribe that “without a direct history of incident/treatment,” and yadda-yadda). So while the Epi-pens we have are expired, we heard that they still work, so for the time being he keeps them with him just in case!
Mosquitoes and Bees, too…
During our August 2020 cross-country drive, we had a similar incident where my son’s face “blew up” (the other kids said he looked like The Elephant Man!) after being bitten by mosquitos. Bee stings with these boys can be equally problematic. The point in mentioning that this concern goes BEYOND food dye is because this cluster of reactions illustrates how the immune system of kiddos who have been Lead-poisoned is often compromised in many ways. This is a compromised immune system that cannot ward off “normal” things most other children deal with without issue — and while the link to food dye reactions in children who have a history of Lead exposure has not yet been formally scientifically studied, it should be. In stark contrast, my oldest kiddo (who was not Lead-poisoned as a baby) did not have any issues like this at all — with either mosquito bites, bee stings, or any food dyes.
A request for scientists and researchers
This is not an isolated incident (not isolated to my children). In my 15+ years as a childhood Lead poisoning prevention activist working with countless families of Lead poisoned children around the world, I have seen similar allergies over and over again in children — allergies producing reactions that appear to be much more significant (and more frequent) in children who have tested positive for Lead in their blood in their lifetime.
If you are a medical researcher and you are reading this, please consider taking this study on (I can easily get you a decent-sized cohort of children with a history of Lead exposure to study!). A study of this issue (and some hard evidence to back the concern for potentially harmful impacts of food dye on children who have been exposed to Lead at some point in their life) could help a lot of kids — and could:
- help make it possible for these kids to get the medical interventions they need and deserve — like Epi-pens! Even with these photos as evidence of my son’s reaction, we have not yet been able to get his prescription renewed! 🙁
- help (possibly) support the larger movement to get coal tar dyes (like Red #40!) outlawed in the United States (especially for use in food and medications).
A plea to parents: this could happen to your kid (or a kid you know) too, that’s also why I am sharing this.
I often hear of people who dismiss other parents’ concerns for allergies that their children have, concerns for peanut allergies, gluten allergies, food dye allergies, and more.
Please know that these concerns can be very, very real — life-threateningly real! When someone says their child has “a life-threatening allergy to food dye” (or peanuts, or gluten, or anything for that matter!) PLEASE take the concern seriously, and treat the situation accordingly. Just because a specific concern (like the link between childhood Lead exposure and food dye reactions) may not have (yet) been well-studied, does not mean it is not a very real problem threatening the lives and well-being of countless children.
Thank you for taking the time to read my sons’ story.
Owner — Lead Safe Mama, LLC
Mother of Lead poisoned children
For those new to this website:
Tamara Rubin is a multiple Federal award-winning independent advocate for consumer goods safety and a documentary filmmaker. She is also a mother of Lead-poisoned children. Tamara’s sons were acutely Lead-poisoned in August of 2005. She began testing consumer goods for toxicants in 2009 and was the parent advocate responsible for finding Lead in the popular fidget spinner toys in 2017. Tamara uses XRF testing (a scientific method used by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission) to test consumer goods for toxicants (specifically heavy metals), including Lead, Cadmium, Mercury, Antimony, and Arsenic. All test results reported on this website are science-based, accurate, and replicable. Items are tested multiple times, to confirm the test results for each component tested and reported on. Please click through to this link to learn more about the testing methodology used for the test results discussed and reported on this website