Low levels of lead contaminate many of the foods Americans eat, including nearly all categories of baby food, a report by the Environmental Defense Fund shows.
SALEM, Ore. — Low levels of lead contaminate many of the foods Americans eat, including nearly all categories of baby food, a report by the Environmental Defense Fund shows.
Fruit juices, root vegetables and cookies were the baby foods most likely to contain lead.
“No child gets high levels of lead from food alone,” said Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director for the 50-year-old nonpartisan, non-profit advocacy group. “But low levels of lead cause a lot of harm to kids across the country.”
The report, released Thursday, is alarming, said Dr. Jennifer Lowry, pediatrician and toxicologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., and chairwoman of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Environmental Health.
Lowry — who is not affiliated with the research — said there is no safe level of lead and lead in baby food can contribute to a child’s elevated blood lead level.
“Children who have elevated blood lead levels are more likely to have speech delays, cognitive difficulties, lower IQs,” she said. “Only a slight difference in IQ is enough to sometimes cause difficulty in school and learning.”
Lower IQs caused by lead exposure translate into a total of $27 billion per year in lost lifetime earnings nationwide, the Environmental Defense Fund calculates in its report.
The Environmental Defense Fund analyzed publicly available data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Total Diet Study, which each year collects samples of food from around the country and tests it for a host of nutrients and contaminants, including lead.
The FDA does not identify the brands that were tested or the stores where they were purchased. Its database includes test results for 57 types of baby food and formula tested between 2003 and 2013.
The environmental group’s analysis found that, over that 11-year period, at least one test had measurable levels of lead in all but five types of baby food.
The report found 20% of the 2,164 baby food samples were positive for lead, compared with 14% of the 10,064 regular food samples. The highest level was detected in a sample of vegetable and beef dinner.
None of the products tested exceeded current government safety standards.
But the researchers argue that government standards don’t reflect current scientific research.
In 2012, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its recommendation on children’s blood lead levels, stating that there is no safe level.
“Unfortunately, our federal agencies have been slow to respond to that,” Lowry said.
In a statement, the FDA said the agency is “in the process of reevaluating the analytical methods it uses for determining when it should take action with respect to measured levels of lead in particular foods, including those consumed by infants and toddlers.
“The FDA is continuing to work with industry to further limit the amount of lead in foods to the greatest extent feasible, especially in foods frequently consumed by children,” the agency wrote.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group representing food companies such as Gerber, said in a statement that lead and other minerals are found naturally in soil and water throughout the world.
“Food and beverage companies seek to adhere to strict manufacturing practices to assure that lead is never added during the cultivation or processing of foods,” the statement reads. “They also work to ensure that the presence of naturally occurring minerals is minimized to the greatest extent possible to ensure the safety of their products for all consumers.”
The researchers, though, noted that not all lead in soil is naturally occurring. Some comes from decades of use of lead-arsenate pesticides, air deposition from burning leaded gasoline and industrial sources.
Contamination also could happen during processing from lead leaching from older brass, bronze, plastic or coated food handling equipment that contains lead; or from deteriorated lead paint in the building.
The Environmental Defense Fund is pushing manufacturers to set a voluntary limit of 1 ppb of lead in baby food and other foods marketed to young children. They also want companies to test more frequently during processing and take action if levels are exceeded.
Meanwhile, Neltner said, parents should talk with their child’s pediatrician about ways to reduce lead exposure, and should contact makers of their favorite food brands to ask whether the company regularly tests for lead and ensures that levels remain below 1 ppb.
“I don’t know whether we can completely eliminate lead,” Neltner said. “But I think we can make a significant dent in that $27 billion, give these kids the IQ points back and benefit society overall.”
Follow Tracy Loew on Twitter: @Tracy_Loew
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