Originally published by Candess Zona-Mendola, Unsafe Foods Editor.
By: Heather Williams
As parents, we do a lot of things to keep our children safe. We child-proof the house, install locks and latches on things, block wall outlets and stairs, make sure they get naps and have a safe environment to play in. We even scrutinize what we are feeding them. Most of us examine every label and use reputable companies to obtain food for our babies. But there are some things missing on the label. According to the Environmental Defense Fund analysis of FDA data, a startling amount of lead is found in baby food. In fact, 20% of the baby food samples tested contained lead. Surprisingly, it is more likely you will find lead in food meant for babies and toddlers’ food than foods without that label.
Why is there lead in baby food? The FDA, along with parents everywhere, are asking that question. In even small quantities lead is dangerous, particularly in small children. There should be no lead at all in the trusted food we buy to feed our children.
Environmental Defense Fund Analysis Findings
In June 2017, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) analyzed FDA data going back 10 years and found lead in surprising sources. “We found that food is a concerning source of young children’s exposure to lead,” said Tom Neltner, EDF Health’s Chemicals Policy Director. “While paint and drinking water are the greatest sources of lead in most children living in older homes, all children get some lead from their diet. Even low levels in blood can cause harm. FDA and food manufacturers can and must take action to reduce lead levels in food.”
According to the study, it was most commonly found in fruit juices with 89% of grape juice samples and 55% of apple juice samples, 45% of pear fruit juice samples, and 67% of mixed fruit juice samples containing lead. Orange juice samples had much lower rates of lead contamination. Lead was found in 86% of sampled sweet potatoes, and 43% of carrots. Lead was also found in 47% of sampled teething biscuits, and 64% arrowroot cookies. 57 food types were evaluated. In 52 of those food types, lead was found in at least 1 sample in each category. In baby food, eight types of baby food were examined and 40% of them contained lead.
“Every child’s food should come unleaded,” said Sarah Vogel, Vice President of EDF’s Health Program. “Unfortunately, food is a poorly understood and often overlooked source of lead exposure, a potent neurotoxin. Our report should serve as a call to action for government and business alike to better protect children.”
The EDF is compelling the FDA to raise standards, make manufacturers lower the level of lead in food produces, and take action when those levels are exceeded. The EDF suggests that companies should set a goal of 1 parts per billion (ppb) of lead and test their own product regularly.
The EDF study found that lead is not the only harmful substance hiding in baby foods. In that same 10-year study, they also analyzed other metals, pesticides, and nutrients in food. Many pesticides are considered toxic. Strawberries, peaches, pears, celery, tomatoes, and potatoes are most at risk for holding onto pesticides used to protect against insects.
Health Hazards of Lead
There is no safe level of lead. Yet, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 500,000 children have elevated blood lead levels. Children face higher consequences from blood lead levels such as behavioral problems and lower IQs as they grow and develop. Often symptoms can be hard to detect and don’t appear until dangerous levels of lead have accumulated. Symptoms and health problems differ from one part of the human life cycle to the next.
Babies exposed to lead before birth are more likely to be born prematurely, have a lower birth weight and slowed growth.
Children may experience developmental delay and learning difficulties. They may become irritable, sluggish, or exhibit fatigue. They may experience loss of appetite and weight loss. There may be abdominal pain, constipation, vomiting, and even seizures and hearing loss. Some may develop pica, a condition where they desire to eat things that are not food such as paint chips or hair.
Adults may have high blood pressure, headache, difficulties with memory or concentration. They may experience joint and muscle pain, abdominal pain, or mood disorders. Lead exposure can cause fertility issues such as reduced sperm count or abnormal sperm in men and miscarriage, still birth, or premature birth in pregnant women.
Other Sources of Lead
While lead is a major problem in baby food, other sources of lead should be considered to protect our children from lead exposure. Lead can be found in some surprising sources. It wasn’t until 1978 that lead-based paints were banned in the United States. Exposure to homes built before then pose a risk.
Lead may be found in soil. Lead in the environment can last for years and blow around from place to place. Leaded gasoline or leaded paint contaminates soil around highways and in some urban areas as well as soil close to walls of older houses that were painted with lead paint. Lead may be found in household dust from contaminated soil brought in from outside or even from dust particles from chips of lead-based paint.
Use caution with products from other countries that do not have the same lead guidelines as the United States. Many cosmetics, foods, and pottery from other countries contain lead. Even some tamarind candies coming from Mexico contain lead.
What Should I Do?
According to the Massachusetts Health and Human Services department, there are foods that can help prevent lead poisoning. The foods strengthen bones and teeth, the two areas of the body that lead is stored. This blocks lead absorption. Foods high in calcium and iron are particularly beneficial such as yogurt, cheese, and whole grain crackers.
The best way to handle lead-based paint in the home is to encapsulate it. Simply painting over the old painted wall will contain the leaded paint. Do not scrape or sand old paint from walls, as any lead particles in the paint can aerosolize and be inhaled and spread throughout the home.
If you are concerned that you or your child has been poisoned with lead or may have been exposed to lead, contact your doctor for a lead blood test to be sure. Do not wait for symptoms, as the damage could be more severe by that point.
And finally, help hold baby food manufactures accountable. Research the foods that you are feeding to your children, write letters and tell them that you expect less than 1 ppb of lead and regular testing to be part of their standards. Every voice will help.
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