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Wednesday, February 22 2023
Getting the Lead Out

Humans have been using lead for over 5000 years. However, since the time of Hippocrates, which was about 2600 years ago and maybe earlier, an awareness of the toxicity from lead was known. More recently in the mid 1800’s Charles Dickens wrote about lead poisoning in his book The Unconventional Traveler, and in the late 1800’s the U.S. medical authorities were talking about lead poisoning in children.  In 1910

Dr. Alice Hamilton wrote about lead poisoning in Illinois factories. Hamilton’s work essentially gave birth to the field of Industrial Toxicology.  Despite this work by Hamilton and others about the dangers of lead, and despite the League of Nations declaring a ban on interior lead paint in the early 1920’s, the use of lead (tetraethyl lead) as an additive to gasoline to prevent engine knocking was accelerating.  It wasn’t until the 1970’s that the U.S. banned the use of lead in paint and gasoline.  Much of the credit at that time is due to Dr. Philip Landrigan, an epidemiologist and pediatrician who had studied lead poisoning from lead refineries and gasoline.  Landrigan is known as one of the leading scientists advocating for children’s health. He has written several books about raising children toxin free (from lead, asbestos, and pesticides) and authored over 500 scientific papers.


If you are interested in reading a more detailed historical timeline about lead click here.


In recent years there have been reports that there are elevated levels of heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, and arsenic in our food. This has even been reported in organic baby foods. This should not be surprising and is in large part due to the decades of unrestricted use of lead and other heavy metals in industrial processes that accumulated in our soil, water, and air.  While it may be impossible to eliminate them completely, testing has shown some serious elevations in certain company’s products that are extremely troublesome.  In 2021, a congressional report showed that the Federal government had a lax approach to overseeing elevated levels of these heavy metals in baby food, and far more than what would be allowed in bottled water.  Somewhat surprisingly there are limits in water, but none in food. The FDA initially asked in 2016 that arsenic levels not exceed 100 ppb (parts per billion), however two companies, Nurture which makes Happy Family products (apple, strawberry, beet, and broccoli puffs) and Hain Celestial which makes Earth’s Best Organic foods were tested and they exceeded that.  Beech-Nut products were even higher with cadmium levels of 3000 ppb in an additive called vitamin mix and 5000 ppb in an enzyme additive called BAN 800. The company also had lead levels of almost 900 ppb in the cinnamon they used.  In 2021 Beech-Nut recalled baby rice cereal because of their arsenic levels were above 100 ppb. Other products with the spices of oregano and cumin also had high levels of lead. By comparison, the FDA limits both cadmium and lead in bottled water to 5 ppb, 50 ppb lead in juices and 100 ppb lead in candy.  The investigators also cited Gerber for selling products with high levels of lead and carrots with high levels of cadmium.  According to a non-profit Healthy Babies Bright Futures, most of the elevated arsenic was coming from both white and brown rice products. This non-profit also issued this 49 page report that gives parents all the information they would need to understand why and how to avoid this contaminants in order to protect their children.   

Lead and the Nervous System

I expect that the FDA will be more attentive to baby foods and children’s foods because there is an abundance of evidence that from multiple health metrics, that children are more susceptible to the effects of lead than older people.  Problems such as developmental delays, learning difficulties, concentration problems, and lowered IQ have been documented.  How does this manifest as a child grows up?         


This chart from Mother Jones shows one possibility.  Look how violent crimes per 100,000 people rose in the population when gas containing lead was emitted into the atmosphere and how it decreased from the mid 1960’s to 2009 with the introduction of unleaded gasoline.


Diagnosing excess lead

There really is no safe level of lead. Elevated levels on a blood test can tell you if you have had an acute exposure from lead. If it is negative, a hair tissue mineral analysis would be a more sensitive method of showing exposure from long term accumulation.


Final Thoughts

Last year Algeria became the last country in the world to stop using leaded gasoline. However, the repercussions of over 50 years of its use in gasoline worldwide are still being felt today.  It seems unfair that the food industry is being penalized from what were the sins of the industrial and automotive industries.  However, some of the heavy metals like lead are within the fertilizers and pesticides used in farming. With the FDA’s more restrictive limits on lead from food manufacturers hopefully this will translate into a healthier population of Americans especially among children whose nervous systems are still in development.

Posted by: Dr. Goldstein AT 08:37 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email

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