Pediatricians and public health researchers know they have to be on the
lookout for lead exposure from paint chips and contaminated drinking
water. A new report suggests food -- particularly baby food -- could be a problem, too.
The Environmental Defense Fund, in an analysis of 11 years of federal
data, found detectable levels of lead in 20 percent of 2,164 baby food
samples. The toxic metal was most commonly found in fruit juices such as
grape and apple, root vegetables such as sweet potatoes and carrots, and cookies such as teething biscuits.
The organization's primary focus was on the baby foods because of how detrimental lead can be to child development.
"Lead can have a number of effects on children and it's especially harmful during critical windows of development," said Dr. Aparna Bole,
pediatrician at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children's
Hospital in Cleveland, who was not involved with the report. "The largest burden that we often think about is neurocognitive that can occur even at
low levels of lead exposure."
Lead can cause problems with attention and behavior, cognitive
development, the cardiovascular system and immune system, Bole said.
The samples studied were not identified by brand, and the levels of lead
are thought to be relatively low. Still, according to the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention, no safe blood lead level in children has
In a draft report released earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that over 5 percent of children consume more than 6
micrograms per day of lead -- the maximum daily intake level set by the
Food and Drug Administration in 1993 -- in their diet.
This surprised Tom Neltner, Environmental Defense Fund's chemicals policy director, who has spent 20 years researching and working to reduce lead exposures. His further analysis of the EPA report was that food is the
major source of lead exposure in two-thirds of toddlers.
This spurred the organization to examine data from the FDA's Total Diet
Study for specific sources of exposure for kids.
In the resulting report, released Thursday, Neltner found that the baby
food versions of apple juice, grape juice and carrots had detectable lead
more often than the regular versions. Researchers could determine how frequently contamination occurred, but not at what levels.
According to the FDA, lead makes its way into food through contaminated
soil, but Neltner suspects that processing may also play a role.
"I can't explain it other than I assume baby food is processed more,"
The Environmental Defense Fund report notes that more research on the
sources of contamination is needed.
FDA has set guidance levels of 100 parts per billion (ppb) for candy and
dried fruit and 50 ppb for fruit juices. The allowable level for lead in bottled water is 5 ppb.
Concern over fruit juices flared up in 2012 when Consumer Reports found
that 1 in 4 samples of apple and grape juices had lead levels higher than
the FDA's bottled-water limit of 5 ppb.
"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," read an agency statement in response to
the report. "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."
Neltner said he's glad the FDA is working on the issue but wants them to
"get it done. Move quicker."
The Environmental Defense Fund isn't recommending that parents avoid
certain foods or brands for their children but does advise that they
consult their pediatrician about all means of lead exposure.
"In many American communities, the most significant route of lead exposure
is from paint and soil," Bole said. "Avoiding all sources of exposure of
lead poisoning is incredibly important ... but the last thing I would want
is for a parent to restrict their child's diet or limit their intake of
healthy food groups."
She added that pediatricians recommend limiting or eliminating fruit
juices from children's diets, anyway, for nutritional reasons. "There are
good reasons to limit juice other than this particular report," Bole said.
But she said she wouldn't want parents to avoid root vegetables
altogether. "The benefits of those nutritious foods far outweigh any
risk," she said, especially in the context of where kids are most exposed
In response to a request for comment, Gerber said that samples of its baby foods and juices "consistently fall well within the available guidance
levels and meet our own strict standards." And samples of Gerber juices
were all below the EPA standard for drinking water.
"We know parents may be concerned about a recent report on lead in foods
and want to reassure them that Gerber foods and juices are safe," the
The Environmental Defense Fund report was ultimately directed at the food industry and FDA in the hopes of getting limits and standards updated.
But lead in paint and drinking water shouldn't fall by the wayside,
Neltner said. "You've got to deal with this issue on multiple fronts."
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