View Full Version : Are your children drinking lead in their juice?

02-17-2012, 10:59 AM
At first glance, a recent report by the Environmental Law Foundation, a California non-profit, indicating there is lead in a variety of popular children's juices, canned fruits, and baby foods-even the organic varieties-almost seems like cause for despair and panic. I can quickly reassure you that it is not, although it is certainly cause for concern, some cautious actions, and consternation over our abuses of this magnificent planet.

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The ELF sampled a variety of the foods mentioned above in its own lab and found levels of lead that exceeded allowances under California's Proposition 65, a law that requires notice to consumers by means of warning labels when foods are tainted. The complete list includes 125 products-apple juice, grape juice, packaged peaches, pears, and fruit cocktail-from brands such as Del Monte, Gerber, Welch's, Trader Joe's, and more (visit envirolaw.org for the whole list).

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Here's one of the reasons you need not panic: the levels for lead stipulated in Proposition 65 are considerably lower than the federal standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). While it is nonetheless disconcerting to learn that many trusted products from many trusted companies were in violation of state law, it is in part because the tiny quantities of lead allowed in that law are below the threshold at which most labs can even detect it. ELF required special test facilities to identify the violations.

Why is lead dangerous?

That said, there is no level of lead in food-especially for children-that is entirely safe, and certainly no level that is desirable. Lead is toxic to the blood and nervous system in particular. If it accumulates in the body, it causes anemia-in part because lead can displace iron, the vital oxygen carrier in our hemoglobin-and it poisons nerve cells. High levels of lead cause overt symptoms, including numbness, tingling, and weakness. But unfortunately, even very low levels can cause cognitive impairment. In other words, lead in your child's body will mean your child's brain works a bit less well.

Should my child be tested for lead?

Because lead levels tend to be in the "acceptable" range in children who don't have unusual exposures, the United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends against routine screening. High-risk children are routinely screened, but for all others, you would need to raise a concern to your child's pediatrician to have testing done. This disturbing report may be reason for you to raise the issue at your next visit to the pediatrician just as a precaution. Symptoms can include irritability, loss of appetite and weigh loss, sluggishness, abdominal pain, vomiting, and constipation, and learning difficulties, according to Mayo Clinic, but early lead poisoning is apt to be invisible.

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Why is there suddenly all this lead in our kids' food?

I can offer one other very reassuring consideration before summing up. The lead contamination disclosed in ELF's recent report is not new lead in the food supply. The report is new, but the exposure has been there all along. We often forget that: A report comes out about a hazards, and it feels as if, suddenly, we and our children face a new danger. But however your child has been doing all along is not going to be changed by this report, which simply cites an exposure that has been there all along. Not a good thing-and yes, a potential hazard-but not a new hazard. Just new awareness about an old hazard.

How can I reduce my kid's exposure?

First, since the ELF report has resulted in citations to a number of food companies, there will likely be more official attention to the problem of low-level lead contamination of foods, more diligent testing, and better enforcement of the law. So, to some extent, the problem is apt to get better just because it was exposed-and this part doesn't depend on you.

But the rest does: 1) Kids tend to drink too much juice in any event, so consider a reduction in juice, and more water. If there is any reason to be concerned about lead in the water, you might use a home filter (see Prevention's favorite ones here), which remove lead down to truly negligible levels. 2) Choose and support organic foods as a matter of routine, whenever possible. While organic foods cannot be guaranteed free of lead due to past contamination of the soil, organic methods avoid adding any more lead to the environment, and so will at least help solve this problem over time. 3) Be familiar with, and vigilant about the signs and symptoms of lead poisoning in a child. 4) As a matter of routine, ask your pediatrician if lead testing is warranted. 5) Don't stop feeding your child fruit, because the net benefits of eating produce certainly outweigh, as a rule, any very tiny potential harm.

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Unfortunately, we have indeed abused this magnificent planet of ours, and there is a price to be paid. We will all be exposed to some toxins, and we can't completely get the lead out of our lives. But knowledge is power, and the awareness generated by the ELF's report provides the power for officials to better safeguard the food supply, and for you as a parent to better protect your child from what slips by them.