Why is Lead Exposure So Dangerous and How Does Lead Get into Food? (part 1 of a 2 part series)
Here’s something you don’t often hear, all scientists agree that lead is toxic to our bodies and particularly to our children. Our goal as conscious consumers is to minimize our exposure to it. From your makeup to your pantry foods to your local volcano eruption, here’s how.
Why is lead a problem?
Lead is a high-density metal that is naturally part of our planet. But the problem is that inside your body, it looks a lot like calcium.
So, your body allows lead to bind to proteins and move with ease through your internal membranes. It can cause mild to serious health problems and permanent brain impairment.
Since lead is naturally occurring on our planet, it is impossible to avoid it completely. But still, lead is considered a true poison, not a “poison by dose.” That means lead plays no role in a healthy body and can damage your health, even with minimal doses sustained over time.
Is lead hiding in plain sight on your counter?
We all know it is important to avoid the high exposure to lead that comes from industrial use like gasoline, mining, and lead-based paint. Lead also spreads during volcano eruptions.
On a more personal level, you may be exposing yourself to high amounts of lead through products you use or consume every day.
- Makeup like lipstick (especially darker colors), eyeliner, and progressive hair dye,
- China, particularly older, decorative china and lead-glazed pottery,
- Plant-based protein powders like pea and rice protein,
- Cocoa powder, and
- Traditional remedies like Bint al Dahab, used in Oman to treat constipation.
Could your symptoms be lead poisoning?
Acute lead exposure (meaning a high level in a short period of time) can cause vomiting, brain swelling, and seizures. Luckily, most of us are not exposed to acute levels of lead. We are more concerned about lead’s invisible threat at low levels of exposure over our lifetime.
You are right to be concerned about this because lead accumulates in your body. And, you may have no idea that the symptoms you are experiencing–gastrointestinal distress, depression, nausea, and fatigue–are actually caused by lead toxicity (your health care practitioner can run a lead test for you).
Here is a long list of concerning symptoms that we often blame other causes for but could be caused by lead poisoning.
- joint pain
- high blood pressure
- urinary tract infections
- hair loss
- reduced IQ
- cognitive impairment
- heart disease
Adding to this, lead can be stored in your bones for up to 30 years. At any point, it can travel to your brain and cause cognitive problems. In fact, researchers suspect toxins like lead may be the leading cause of age-related mental decline.
Can you remove lead from your body?
The best way to lower lead in your blood is to eliminate your exposure to it. Unfortunately, this will not remove low levels of lead stored in other areas of your body, like your bones.
Interestingly, doctors will use a drug that binds with lead to pull it out of your body. This is called chelation therapy. However, the chelating agent is only used for adults with severe blood lead levels. Tragically, there is no treatment to help children with cognitive damage from lead poisoning.
Wooden pencils in the United States no longer have lead in them, but many children were exposed prior to 1978.
Who is at greater risk of being poisoned by lead exposure?
Children. Children’s tissues are softer than adult tissues, making it easier for lead to travel throughout their bodies, resulting in permanent loss in intelligence. But all of us should be avoiding lead as much as possible.
Here are major risk factors:
- Living in a lower-income neighborhood.
- Eating food grown in or drinking water from areas where there is mining or industrial runoff.
- Being exposed to leaded gasoline or soil and water contaminated by it, like land near highways or in and around auto repair garages.
- Living in an older home built before 1978 that may have lead paint, which can chip away and create lead dust.
- Being exposed to sanding and construction of old houses, where lead is dispersed into the air and surrounding soil.
- Being a boy. Boys are more vulnerable to brain damage from lead exposure than girls. Some scientists believe estrogen and estradiol may convey some protection against the damage lead causes.
What level of lead build-up in your body is considered toxic?
Interestingly, two people with the same lead toxicity levels can have very different severity and types of symptoms. Scientists do not know exactly why.
The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) established the lead toxicity guidelines below. But keep in mind that despite these recommendations, the CDC says no level of lead is “safe.”
- The CDC recommends taking action to limit children’s exposure if their blood level is above 5ug/DL. Your health care provider can run this test for you.
- The CDC considers adult blood levels of 10ug/DL or above to be “elevated.”
The FDA has a task force working to reduce heavy metal exposure to children called “Closer to Zero.” It published its action plan in 2022 and meetings and comment periods are ongoing. The good news is that heavy metal exposure for children 1-3 has declined dramatically since the 1980s due to measures like banning leaded gasoline and household paint. But the FDA recognizes that no exposure level is safe, and this task force is working to continue reducing lead levels.
This FDA chart below shows how effective government action can be in banning things like lead paint, gasoline, and lead-soldering of canned food.
And, we have much room to improve. Individual products and certain crops are known to have high lead levels. And, certain age groups are more susceptible, young children in particular. Consumers should have the right to know the lead levels in the products they consume.
Organic standards do not address heavy metals, and this infographic by The Clean Label Project demonstrates this.
But, many foods have lead residue. So we aren’t as concerned that 75% had some lead. What’s more important is to know how much and which specific products.
Why and where does lead exposure happen through food?
Lead is in naturally many foods. It’s even in your kale. But naturally occurring lead like this is typically at low enough levels that your body can handle it. Here’s how.
- Your body’s natural detox system can process small levels of lead exposure, and
- Nutrients in healthy food, like calcium, iron, and vitamin C, can prevent lead from staying in your body.
However, surprisingly high lead levels have been found in some of our favorite foods, like chocolate, peas, cannabis (sorry), sweet potatoes, and mustard greens, as well as other crops. That means lead can wind up in the products you may have in your pantry, like these:
- baby food
- fruit juice
- energy bars
- hot cocoa
- protein shakes
- meat substitutes
How Does ZEGO Control for Lead?
At ZEGO, we require lead testing of all ingredients we source that are at risk for elevated lead contamination. If the farmer or supplier doesn’t have access to validated third-party testing, we send a sample to our own third-party lab for testing. ZEGO requires that the food sample results show no measurable lead – or at least a level under the Prop 65 threshold based on serving size (<0.5PPB).
You can see our results for our protein powder, oats, and chocolate on the Food Safety page of our website, or scan the QR code on the back of any of our product packages.
Read more about how lead gets into food, how to avoid it, and what foods help your body process it in Part 2 of this series.
Colleen Kavanagh is the founder and CEO of ZEGO. ZEGO is the first purity-transparent food company that makes superfood products with traceable transparency for allergens, gluten, and toxins. All products are designed to be safe for most people to eat, regardless of dietary restrictions, such as common allergies, intolerances, sensitivities, or diabetes.
ZEGO makes oats, muesli, protein powder, Mix-ins, and nutrition bars. ZEGO products are gluten free, peanut free, tree nut free, dairy free, soy free, sesame free, glyphosate free, lupin free, and sulfite-free. ZEGO is certified as a B Corp and as a women-owned business (WBENC).
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