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What Parents Need To Know About Recent Study On Lead Found In Baby Food Samples


New research by the Environmental Defense Fund using federal data found detectable levels of lead in 20 percent of baby food samples.

While the Food and Drug Administration has determined safe levels of lead that can be ingested, a North Texas toxicologist explains that repeated exposure to small amounts of lead is the greater concern when it comes to kids' health and development.

Dr. Shannon Rickner is a toxicologist with the North Texas Poison Center at Parkland Hospital. 

Interview Highlights:

How can lead get into baby food? “It’s a complicated process. There is lead in the soil in a lot of places. So, any vegetables or fruits that grow in that soil absorb that lead and can have it in the things that are used to process that are then taken to the plants, and run through a series of steps to make them into the baby food, to put them into the cans and the bottles. And at any point along that entirely long pathway, there is a possibility that small amounts could be introduced and just accumulate into detectable levels at the end product."

Shouldn’t there be steps to prevent lead exposure or ingestion? “It’s tough to know where along the line the lead is being introduced. So, it’s tough to have steps and implementation at every single step to figure out how much lead is in the product at that point. The vast majority of products are tested at the end and a majority of them, while they do have detectable levels, they have been levels which have historically been considered safe in small amounts.”

There are safe levels of lead you can be exposed to? “Absolutely, the FDA has put out levels that have considered acceptable upper limits. For example, water has an acceptable upper limit of five parts per billion. That is much lower than the limit considered acceptable in other products simply because we’re exposed to water so much more than any other product. You, theoretically, would be cooking with water and drinking water more so than you would be eating, say, candy or fruits that would have a higher amount.”

Is the danger from a single exposure or from repeated exposure? "Our concern at this point is repeated exposure to small amounts, and whether that can accumulate, and whether that will affect the long-term neurodevelopmental capacity that infants, toddlers, babies have because, of course, your brain is developing all the way through adolescence. We’re always worried that those small exposures over time can cause an impact down the road.”

Should parent stay away from the foods mentioned in the study? “It’s a complicated question. You don’t want to avoid all vegetables. You don’t want to avoid all vegetable fruits simply because there have been – in some products – detectable levels. Babies need the vitamins and minerals in order to grow all the other parts of the body and not just the brain.

"The best course is keeping in contact with their pediatrician, making sure that their children have the levels tested when they’re supposed to be tested so that they can understand whether there has been a significant enough exposure to actually accumulate in the body and then kind of go from there.”

For more information:

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.