Lead poisoning in children is scary, but what if it’s being caused by lead in food? When we hear the word lead we think of metal or pencils, but typically not food. Many of us know of the dangers of lead paint or hidden lead in water and buildings, but we don’t often consider the reality of lead in our food supply. The decision to take control of our food could mean the difference between being a worrier and a warrior.
Invasion Of Lead In Food
Humans have been using lead for the last 5,000 years. Today, it can be found in products such as car batteries, jewelry, and industrial paint. Lead had been used in paint until it was banned in 1978 for household use in the United States. Despite this, there are still 24 million housing units that contain high levels of contaminated dust from chipping paint. “Years after policies went into place in the US limiting or eliminating lead in paint, plumbing, and gasoline, there’s still a lot of legacy lead hanging around,” according to National Public Radio reporter, Rae Ellen Bichell.
Too much lead in the body can cause lead poisoning, leading to physical and mental effects. Inhalation, swallowing, and skin absorption are common exposure routes. In each method of contact, lead behaves as a poison.
The Environmental Defense Fund released a study June 15 in which the findings were most concerning for infants. Eight types of baby food tested positive for lead in 40 percent of its samples, including baby apple, carrot, and grape juices. Twenty percent of the sampled baby foods had detectable levels.
While lead contaminated water is a real concern, contaminated dust and soil are major causes of lead ingestion too. Food grown in exposed soil is vulnerable to contamination. The owner of N. Papanikolaou & Associates, Nikolas C Papanikolaou writes, “The majority of cases of lead poisoning are due to oral ingestion and absorption through the gut.” It can also find its way into our food through lead solder-sealed food cans. Even naturally mineral-rich products, such as beef, can have too much lead.
Lead In Food: One Instance of Exposure Is Too Much
There is no safe level of contact of lead; effects of exposure are irreversible. Lead is dangerous because it acts like a systemic pesticide on humans. Once absorbed, it is stored within our bones. Here it remains for the remainder of our lives, primarily because our bodies confuse lead with calcium.
Very small amounts of exposure have very large consequences. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, lead is responsible for a one-point decrease in the adult population intelligence quotient (IQ), or a 0.38 decrease in individual IQ. Other poisoning effects include abdominal pain, fatigue, headaches, irritability, and memory loss. Effects of poisoning worsen as blood lead levels increase.
High-level exposure is linked to anemia, kidney damage, and brain damage, and in extreme cases death. Low-level exposure has similar effects with the addition of reproductive system issues. While these effects pose serious threats to adults, children bear the brunt. Felicia Rabito, a professor at Tulane University School of Public Health explains, “If a kid eats a lead paint chip and you eat a lead paint chip, adults are not going to absorb as much as a kid.”
Lead absorption is as much as five times higher in children than adults. “Young children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead because lead can affect children’s developing nerves and brains,” says Jianghong Liu, Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. The protection of the womb does not shield exposure either. Maternal traces of lead can enter the fetus’ blood and damage the nervous system. As with adults, there is no known safe lead level for unborn children.
Adults and children share many of the same symptoms of lead poisoning. Abdominal pain, headaches, irritability, and IQ loss are a few of these shared adult and childhood symptoms. Children may also develop weight loss and a metallic taste in their mouths. Childhood lead exposure will continue to affect children for the rest of their lives. The growth and development that takes place during these early years is the foundation for future neural formation.
One million neural connections form per second during the first years of life. Brain structure depends on these neural connections, as well as future behavior, health, and learning outcomes. Lead impairs parts of the brain responsible for emotion and basic functioning. The cerebral cortex, the area responsible for most of our five senses and abilities like language processing, has the highest levels of dopamine. Dopamine, which controls attention, memory, and mood, is highly sensitive to lead. Lead exposed children are at an increased likelihood of developing problems with their attention, self-regulation, and visual motor skills-which all impact the learning process and consequently, affects IQ.
IQs’ Struggle Against Lead
Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates there are about one million children in the United States who are suffering from lead poisoning. With the combined effects of food toxicity and other environmental health issues, our IQs are taking a toll. A population-wide decrease in IQ, 23 million points, can be sourced to lead. A study found that blood lead levels in three and 5-year-olds that increased from one microgram to 10 micrograms per deciliter were linked to a 7.4 point drop in IQ. A seven point decrease may not seem like much but, “even small changes in IQ (have) some significant influence (on) the course people’s lives (take),” according to study director Aaron Reuben. Persons with this IQ drop are also likely to experience decreased social mobility; jobs attained are less academically challenging and provide less income.
Avoid Lead In Food Through Better Nutrition
Lead exposure may not be entirely preventable, considering the lingering amounts in air and soil, but there is something we can do to reduce our family’s exposure as much as possible.
Dietary exposure can be easily reduced with some small changes:
- Skip canned food to avoid lead in food. By not purchasing canned items, which may be lead sealed, we reduce contact.
- Forgo juice. Regardless of the EDFs study, juice has never been the best option. Removal of juice will limit exposure and other juice related issues.
- Supplement. Consumption of calcium, iron, and vitamin C is also a good idea. These supplements reduce blood lead levels and slow down the absorption rate of lead.
- Go organic! Eating organically promotes a healthier lifestyle, and improves soil conditions. Organic foods also contain fewer additives and are antioxidant rich.
- Grow your own. With or without a large garden, planting our own food is entirely possible. “Organic is something we can all partake of and benefit from,” explained Maria Rodale, author of Organic Manifesto: How Organic Farming Can Heal Our Planet, Feed the World, and Keep Us Safe.
Conscientious decisions must be made to avoid exposure to lead in food. Luckily, we can exert a level of control over the food we use to nourish our bodies. With the knowledge of lead’s whereabouts we can choose our endorsement of lead or lack thereof. The dangers of lead may be scary but they do not have to terrorize.
Watch this short video to understand how lead poisoning effects you:
Angela Jones is a freelance writer living in New Mexico. Growing up in an ecological diverse area has made her a lover and protector of the environment. Aside from environmental health, she is also an advocate for holistic health. When she is not writing she can be found helping others at her customer service jobs.
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