Saturday, November 24, 2007

kid concoctions

The house is not the biggest on the block, but Blanca de la Cruz's bungalow is swept and tidy, and she keeps a close watch on her two boys, 9-year-old Saul and 3-year-old Miguel.

So she was puzzled in February when, over the course of only a few days, Miguel began acting oddly: He was clumsy, irritable and high-strung. She took him for a checkup and four days later got a bold-faced letter from the city health department saying Miguel was "probably lead-poisoned."

Decades after the federal government banned lead paint and oil companies began phasing out leaded gasoline, hundreds of thousands of children show signs of lead exposure. Poor and minority kids living in big cities are among the hardest hit, with symptoms that include learning difficulties and behavioral problems.

Pediatricians ring alarm bells when a child's blood tests show lead levels above 10 ug/dL (micrograms per deciliter) of blood. A microgram is a millionth of a gram. A deciliter is one-tenth of a liter.

A blood test put Miguel's blood lead level at 33 ug/dL. A few more points and he would have been hospitalized. A city inspector visited the house, wipe-tested surfaces throughout and found what he expected: The lead was coming from the windows.

Massive recalls of lead-painted toys from China are making news these days. Mattel last month recalled 675,000 Barbie toys, including Barbie's Dream Puppy House and Kitty Condo. But for the thousands of kids sickened by lead each year, it's not Barbie's Dream House that makes them sick - it's their own house.

Americans could be excused for assuming that lead poisoning went away long ago.

Lead paint banned
The government banned lead paint in 1978, and oil companies began phasing out leaded gasoline in 1975. But three decades later, hundreds of thousands of children - most younger than age 6 - show signs of lead exposure. The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that one in four children live in housing with deteriorated lead paint.

Eliminating lead from gasoline, paint and other products has paid off.

Lead concentrations in the air have declined dramatically, about 96 percent, from 1980 to 2005. Only two U.S. counties - Jefferson County, Mo., and Lewis and Clark County in Montana - now have lead levels that exceed federal air-quality standards.

But lead still harms an estimated 310,000 American kids, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

A potent neurotoxin, lead affects the brain, kidneys and nervous system - often irreversibly. Even exposure to a small amount of dust can raise a toddler's blood lead to dangerous levels, scientists say.

Studies have linked lead to lower IQs, learning difficulties, behavioral problems and even death. Researchers also have found that children exposed to lead are more likely to end up with criminal records.

Poor and minority kids in big cities are among those hit hardest, according to the CDC - and many researchers say that has kept the nation's lingering lead problem from generating more public outrage. But lead also remains in older homes owned by middle-class families.

Lead paint in walls or windows chips or rubs off as a house ages. In most houses, such as Miguel's, paint dust settles near the windows, after years of opening and closing. The simple act of letting in fresh air grinds the old paint in the cracks to a powder. Miguel touched the dust and, as 3-year-olds do, put his fingers in his mouth.

De la Cruz and her husband bought the house in 2002, but for decades the windows apparently had been painted with lead-based paint. Owners would have switched to safer stuff only after the 1978 government ban.

"That storehouse of lead that exists in the older housing in this country is enormous," says Philip Landrigan of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. "It's going to be there for decades and decades."

For many kids, a routine blood lead test uncovers dangerous lead levels in their homes.

Window replacement
Jamia Handy, her husband Thaddeus Chatman and four kids were living in a rental house in Baltimore for four months before a well-baby check in August for her daughter Jaiah Chatman, who is nearly 2, came back with a lead level of 84 - eight times the "action level." The culprit: lead dust in and around the home's windows.

The Baltimore-based Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, which since 2000 has been pushing for a massive window-replacement program, moved in to renovate the home and replace the windows but first had to spend weeks negotiating with the property owner. The family is staying in a hotel while the work proceeds.

Doctors admitted Jaiah immediately to intensive care, where she began oral chelation therapy: one dose every eight hours of a concoction containing a chemical that binds to lead in the blood so she can get rid of it through her urine.

Jamia Handy, who attends nursing school, says her training has not covered how to prevent lead poisoning. Jaiah had the symptoms - loss of appetite, irritability - but Jamia says they were unusual only in hindsight.

"She's always irritable," Handy said. "She's the baby. She's got brothers."

Three weeks of chelation got Jaiah's lead level down to 44. But if it goes up, she'll have to be readmitted to the hospital. It's unclear whether Jaiah will have developmental issues. If she does, they won't show up for another two to four years, doctors say.

In 2005, only 1.6 percent of children ages 1 to 5 had elevated blood lead, considerably fewer than in the 1970s, when 88 percent did. It's "one of the great triumphs in public health in this country over the last 20 to 25 years," says Landrigan, a pediatrician.

Some cities have moved aggressively to curb the lead problem in older homes.

Health officials in Milwaukee, for example, pioneered a program in the early 1990s that pays homeowners $160 to repair or replace each lead-painted window.

By all indications, the program has been a success. In 1995, 39 percent of city kids had elevated blood lead. By 2006, it was down to 6.6 percent . Total cost: $53.5 million - about two-thirds of it from federal grants.

Rick Nevin, a Fairfax, Va., economist, and David Jacobs, a former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department housing research director, are proposing a massive public-private effort to replace windows in the nation's aging housing stock. They say the money spent - $22 billion, less than the federal government spends on education in a year - would yield $67 billion in benefits, including lower rates of special-education enrollment, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, juvenile delinquency and crime - and lower heating costs.

Since high blood lead levels in children are known to reduce impulse control, the push in the 1970s to reduce environmental lead did more to fight crime by juveniles who came of age in the 1990s than public policies such as fixing up neighborhoods or adding police to city streets, Nevin says.

It has been nearly eight months since Miguel's alarming blood test. In that time, workers installed new windows in his house. That and a low-fat diet high in calcium and iron have cut his blood lead level nearly in half, from 33 to 17. But he's still in danger.

"It's real stressful," says de la Cruz, who keeps a detailed file of her son's blood tests - eight in all since February - in a zippered Mickey Mouse tote bag.

"I don't want anybody to face the experience I had," she says.

Seth Bowden's restaurant, Cortez, won a coveted Michelin star in the guide's 2008 Bay Area edition, released Oct. 22. A few days later, his co-chef, Louis Maldonado, accepted a position at Thomas Keller's fabled French Laundry, leaving Bowden as the sole executive chef of the iconoclastic restaurant in San Francisco's theater district. Not bad for a man who didn't see cooking as a job, let alone a career, until just a few years ago.

Bowden, 32, admits to a lifelong interest in food. He grew up in New York state, where his family always maintained a large organic garden.

"My dad is such a dedicated gardener, he'd turn on lights so he could garden after dark," Bowden says.

Family meals included "really crunchy" whole-grain breads and ingredients such as rhubarb and raw beets. As a boy, Bowden appreciated the philosophy behind his parents' cuisine, but at times he longed for American kids' fare such as pizza and hamburgers.

To this day, the sophisticated young chef sometimes craves an old-fashioned all-American burger. That's why we met at Pearl's Deluxe Burgers, a stone's throw from Cortez. It's as plain as things can get, with about a dozen kinds of burgers, french fries and onion rings served in red plastic baskets.

But it's honest food - "they use good meat," Bowden says - and the people are dedicated to what they are doing. Those are two attributes the chef appreciates, whether the food is haute or down-home.

He started his culinary journey when he was a high school student, mopping restaurant floors. By the time has was a creative-writing major at State University of New York at New Paltz, he had advanced to washing dishes. From there, he progressed to flipping burgers, fixing soup and then making more complicated dishes.

When he got a real cooking job at the Mohonk Mountain House in the Catskills, he not only acquired professional skills, but also gathered a few insights. Being close to the Culinary Institute of America, the resort had its share of CIA graduates on staff. Their level of competence, Bowden says with an apologetic grin, did not make him want to go to culinary school.

Instead, he followed his girlfriend -now his wife, Brahmani Houston - to Paris, where she had a job teaching English. Acknowledging his total naivete about the ins and outs of French haute cuisine, the young cook sent resumes to some top Paris restaurants, but didn't get a single reply. Eventually, French friends got him a job at a brasserie at 10 euros an hour. Through a succession of brasserie stints, he learned French and acquired a good knowledge of casual French food.

A 3,000-mile bike tour through France, Italy and Greece widened the young couple's culinary and cultural horizons. They returned to the United States after 18 months, and Bowden went on to more challenging jobs, landing at Cortez in 2004. When then co-chefs Quinn and Karen Hatfield left not quite two years later, Bowden and Maldonado moved into the top spots, at first sticking close to the Hatfields' concept of small plates, but eventually adding full-size entrees.

Bowden is dedicated to the restaurant's contemporary European approach.

"I am always hard put to put a label on our cooking," he says, but confirms that he is more inspired by European trends than by changes on the American food scene.

He does, however, avail himself of California's agricultural bounty and makes sure his cooks know where their ingredients come from. He regularly takes his staff to the Marin Farmers' Market in San Rafael and the Alemany market near his San Francisco home. In the same spirit of staff advancement, he and six other chefs of highly rated San Francisco restaurants offer cooks from one another's kitchens a 50 percent discount on meals so they can better afford to check out what the other guys are doing.

Back at Cortez, Bowden is not above playing with his food a little, including experimenting with foams. He defends the modish concoctions, saying that they make it possible to incorporate potent flavors without overwhelming the palate. Besides, he points out, the trendy foams aren't really such a recent invention.

"Really," he says, "what's a sabayon or a mousse other than a foam?"

They are a great way to add a little drama to the plate, he says, and that is appropriate.

"After all, many of our guests go on to the theater after dinner," he says. "We should be a little theatrical."

Pearl's Deluxe Burgers: 708 Post St. (near Jones), San Francisco; (415) 409-6120.

HOURS: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Fri.-Sat. Banning sugary beverages at schools is one way to tackle America's childhood obesity epidemic. This might be another: getting kids to drink a new, low-sugar, vitamin-infused, flavored beverage in a quirky Y-shaped bottle created by superstar industrial designer Yves Béhar.

The certified organic drink, called Y Water, is scheduled to be introduced early next year at Whole Foods Market (WFMI.O). It comes in four varieties, each with a mix of flavors composed of ingredients such as coriander or black carrot juice along with a dash of calcium or zinc.

If you manage to get a finicky kid to take a few swigs and finish the bottle, the packaging can then be re-used as a toy: special connectors allow a child to stick Y Water bottles together to form Lego-like constructions. "It is exotic," says Thomas Arndt, founder of the Los Angeles private startup Y Water, about the beverage-cum-toy, which will cost a hefty $1.69 for a 9-ounce bottle. "But it is unique," he adds. "It enriches the fantasy life of a kid. They start guessing what's in it."

So will parents who are worried about their children's consumption of sugar-laced beverages. This has become a big question: Beverage industry giants like Coca-Cola (KO) and Pepsico (PEP) agreed last year to self-imposed guidelines on the sale of such drinks in schools. As substitutes, beverage and bottled-water companies are launching "healthier" alternatives, aimed at attracting kids or pacifying parents who will buy or sanction the drinks.

Kindergarten Consumers
Some of the new offerings are simply tie-ins with a cartoon, or in the case of Crayola Color Coolerz!, from Advanced H2O, a name-brand crayon. But some beverage companies are going further. Nestlé's Poland Spring devised the rocket-ship-shaped Aquapod, a bulbous, smaller version for kids of its best-selling bottled-water brand. Meanwhile, Honest Kids, from organic bottled-tea company Honest Tea, comes in a portable plastic pouch.

Targeting kids is part of a broader strategy by the beverage industry to tailor drinks to niche consumer segments. "What we are seeing are finely targeted products for a particular need, or a time of the day, or a demographic―and that includes kids, which is an underserved category," says Gary Hemphill, managing director of Beverage Marketing, an industry research and consulting company in New York. As a result, Hemphill adds, "there are fewer one-size-fits-all products" in the beverage market.

Arndt started thinking about a children's beverage two years ago when he couldn't find anything in Los Angeles supermarkets that he wanted his own kids, now ages 9 and 7, to drink. "They didn't want water, and the school had banned soft drinks," recalls Arndt, a former brand manager in Germany for energy drink company Red Bull. His idea was to create a low-calorie, organic beverage that would be a thirst quencher and also have health benefits or functionality―a category known in the industry as value-added beverages―all in a kid-friendly package.

Not exactly the sweet grape concoctions in a juice box kids usually crave. But Arndt, who after working for Red Bull introduced health-drink company Carpe Diem to the U.S., believed that kids would appreciate a more sophisticated taste. When it comes to drinks, Arndt concluded, "kids aren't taken seriously."


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