The Problem with Lead

Many people think that lead is only an issue for home interiors painted with materials prior to 1978 or isolated parts of the U.S. that have high levels of lead detected in the public drinking water.  But problems with lead are far more pervasive and far closer to home than many might think–namely, in the food* we eat (leaching from food packaging containers)**, in cosmetics like lipstick, and lead in bottled water bought at the supermarket. 

The fact that lead is present in processed food and drink items is a problem for babies, children and pregnant women because it has been linked to cognitive problems with the developing brain, and for adults because it has been linked with serious health conditions like heart disease and kidney and liver disorders.

So that is one problem with lead–the main one.  But the other problem with lead–why it still exists in our food, cosmetics and water–is a political one.  Namely, regulatory capture of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and its subsequent cozy relationship with food manufacturers has kept the laws preventing high levels of lead in U.S. consumers’ food and products woefully outdated and ineffectual.

A Solution on the Horizon?

“A group of organizations has recently sent a formal petition to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) urging the agency to revise its outdated standards for lead in food to better protect the public, and especially children, from the impacts of lead exposure. Specifically, the petition calls on the agency to stop allowing lead to be added to materials that contact food, to update its guidance to better protect against the risk of lead exposure, and to tighten its limits for lead in bottled water. These are simple steps FDA can immediately take in the effort to reduce widespread exposure to lead, and the irreversible harm the heavy metal poses, in our food supply.  

The petition highlights three specific opportunities to reduce lead in food and beverages:

  • Reduce the amount of lead allowed in bottled water from 5 to 1 parts per billion consistent with American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations.
  • Ban lead in tin that coats food cans. An Environmental Defense Fund analysis of FDA data found lead detected in 98% of certain canned fruits compared to only 3% in fresh or frozen varieties — pointing to the canning process as the source of the heavy metal. FDA reported finding lead in almost half of canned food it sampled.
  • Stop adding lead to brass or bronze used in equipment to dispense water or brew tea and coffee. There is ample evidence that this lead leaches into the beverages.  

The petition describes how FDA should prohibit lead as an additive to food contact articles (e.g. food packaging, processing or handling equipment, and cookware), update its guidance on lead limits in food and food ingredients, and tighten its limit for lead in bottled water in keeping with the latest scientific evidence.”  Source

*A recent EPA analysis found that for more than 70% of children in the US, the dominant source of lead exposure is from food. 

**Lead can also enter food through processing and contact with materials containing the heavy metal.