ST. LAWRENCE COUNTY, N.Y (WWTI) — Recent reports and discussions about lead contamination in baby foods may have some people concerned, so one county health department in northern New York offered clarification in a breakdown of current guidelines and what they mean.
Lead is a poisonous metal that is especially harmful to young children due to their small size and developing brains. Public Health officials say that even low lead exposure can harm children’s health and development, specifically the brain and nervous system.
Lead is a naturally occurring element. It may be present in environments where crops used to make food intended for young children are grown. The Food and Drug Administration recently proposed limits for the amount of lead allowed in baby foods.
What do the guidelines mean?
The FDA has been working since the 1980s to reduce the amount of lead and other environmental contaminants in foods. The latest guidance is aimed at limiting lead concentrations in processed baby foods.
The new limits include:
- 10 ppb in fruits, vegetables and meats packaged in baby food jars, pouches, tubs and boxes;
- 20 ppb for dry cereals; and
- 20 ppb for root vegetables.
The abbreviation “ppb” means part per billion. Public Health officials say one part per billion is a very small number and can be difficult to put into perspective, but parents can think of it as one dollar out of one billion dollars or as one inch in 16,000 miles.
Why is there lead in baby food?
Lead and other heavy metals are elements that occur naturally in the earth. Foods such as fruits, vegetables and grains absorb contaminants like lead the same way they absorb vital nutrients and minerals. Health experts say that it is not possible to eliminate lead entirely from the food supply because it is naturally occurring.
Can lead in baby food harm your child?
Health experts say that genetic, social and environmental factors influence healthy brain development in young children. The low levels of heavy metals found in baby foods are likely to pose only a small risk to children, but should still be minimized, according to Public Health officials.
They say the challenge with lead and other heavy metals is that they accumulate in the body, so small amounts can add up over time. The vast majority of lead exposures in the United States come from lead-based paint in older homes.
How can you reduce your child’s exposure to lead?
Serve a variety of foods
Public Health recommends serving a variety of foods to children to help provide an array of vitamins and nutrients that may offset the damage caused by lead. Health officials advise parents to focus on foods that are high in iron, calcium and vitamin C.
Iron is found in eggs, peanut butter, whole grains and lean protein and can help protect against the harmful effects of lead.
Calcium can make it more difficult for lead to be absorbed in the body. It’s found in dairy, dried fruits and almonds.
Vitamin C is found in fruits, peppers and tomatoes and can help the body absorb iron and calcium.
Read food labels
Public Health experts advise parents to read the list of ingredients to be sure that baby foods offer the variety they claim. Many flavor blends list sweet potatoes as their first ingredient even though the packaging advertises a kale and pear or spinach and pumpkin flavor.
Switch up grains
Health officials say rice cereals often contain higher levels of metals than other crops. Parents can incorporate oats, barley, couscous, quinoa, farro and multi-grain infant cereals. Experts suggest avoiding foods with rice milk and brown rice syrup.
Avoid fruit juice
Many fruit juices, especially apple and grape, may contain high levels of heavy metals. As a healthy alternative, parents can offer children fruit slices rather than juice.
Address lead hazards in your home
Lead-based paint was banned in 1978. Nearly 75% of homes in St. Lawrence County were built prior to the ban and as a result, many parents may be unaware that their homes contain lead hazards.
To keep your home lead-safe, you should:
- fix areas with chipped and peeling paint;
- regularly clean floors, windowsills and surfaces with a wet cloth or mop;
- use cold flushed tap water for mixing formula, drinking or cooking;
- follow safe practices for removing lead-based paint or hire lead-safe contractors; and
- avoid smoking or vaping, as smoke from both regular and e-cigarettes may expose children to heavy metals, including lead.
A free lead-safe renovation course is available online. Some homes may be eligible for free home renovations to reduce health hazards. To find out if your home qualifies, call the North Country Housing Council at 315-386-8576.
Have your child tested for lead
If you have concerns about lead, health experts suggest talking to your child’s doctor about testing for lead poisoning. All children should be tested for lead at ages 1 and 2 years. The effects of lead poisoning are difficult to detect without a blood test.