EDF Health

Selected tag(s): Heavy metals in food

Getting lead out of brass and bronze food equipment

Tom Neltner, J.D. is the Chemicals Policy Director.

Many people may not be aware that lead is still added to brass and bronze used to make drinking water faucets and food equipment like coffee brewers and more. This is problematic because lead can leach into the water and beverages from the equipment – putting consumers at risk. As part of EDF’s efforts to reduce exposure to lead from all sources, we have advocated to stop this use of the heavy metal.

Last June, our three-year effort yielded results when the committee responsible for the national consensus standard for plumbing devices, known as NSF/ANSI/CAN 61, made its lead leaching standard five times more protective for endpoint devices – from 5 to 1 parts per billion. Endpoint devices are faucets, drinking water fountains and other devices installed within the last one liter of water distribution systems in a building. For all other plumbing devices, lead is limited to the amount added to the device’s material, 2500 parts per million (ppm) [1], and leaching limit does not apply.

This fall, we turned our attention to lead leaching into drinking water from food equipment such as ice machines, coffee brewers, teapots, and water heaters. We have submitted petitions to NSF International and to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asking them to prohibit use of lead in brass and bronze commonly used in these devices.

For food equipment, we leveraged the more protective safety standards for food contact substances in the Food Additives Amendment of 1958. These standards require that additives not be used unless there is a reasonable certainty of no harm from their intended use after taking into account related substances in the diet. It also prohibits use of carcinogens. Lead is unsafe under both these restrictions because it is a carcinogen and no safe threshold has been found for lead in the blood to prevent neurologic development harm in children and heart disease in adults.

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It’s time to eliminate lead from tin coating and solder on metal food cans

Tom Neltner, J.D. is the Chemicals Policy Director.

In October 2019, we reported finding canned foods had a surprising number of samples with lead based on the Food and Drug Administration’s testing results. Almost half of the 242 samples had detectable lead, including a staggering 98% of 70 canned fruit samples.

We suspect that the high lead detection rates are a result of lead in the tin – either added to make an alloy or as a contaminant – used to coat the steel or join steel pieces together in the cans. This lead can then leach from the coating or solder into the food. Light-colored fruits and fruit juices would be more likely to have lead contamination based on a report indicating they are commonly packaged in tin-coated steel cans without a synthetic coating on the inside isolating the food from the tin. The lead detections in the other canned products in FDA’s study could have resulted from flawed synthetic coatings.

In December 2020, EDF and ten health, consumer, and environmental groups[1] petitioned FDA to ban the use of lead in food contact materials such as tin. We also included that FDA should presume that lead was intentionally used when levels in food contact materials are at or above 100 parts per million (ppm) and provided an option for the agency to specifically authorize the use only if:

  • The part of the food contact article that contains added lead does not contact food under intended conditions of use; or
  • No lead migrates into food from the food contact article under intended conditions of use.

Our petition demonstrates that, because lead is a carcinogen that is unsafe at any level in the blood, its use in tin coatings and solder for food cans should be expressly prohibited. The agency posted the petition for public comment and must make a decision how to proceed by June 2021. There is no deadline for comments, but it is best to submit them by April 1 so they can influence the agency’s decision.

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Best practices for reducing cadmium in food: New review from FDA scientists

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

Note to readers: As we all grapple with the grave global health challenge from COVID19, we want to acknowledge the essential services that the professionals at the Food and Drug Administration and in the food production, processing and retail industries provide in continuing to deliver food. In the meantime, we are continuing to work towards improved health protections – including reducing chemicals in food. We’ll plan to keep sharing developments that may be useful to you. In the meantime, please stay safe and healthy.

Two years ago, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) put cadmium on our radar when the Toxic Elements Working Group included cadmium together with arsenic, lead and mercury as metals affecting children’s neurological development. As part of that effort, FDA committed to look at all four metals across all foods instead of one contaminant, one food at a time. Last year, FDA’s scientists published a peer-reviewed article assessing children’s exposure to lead and cadmium in the diet. They found that spinach, lettuce, sunflower seeds, potato chips and wheat cereal were among the top 10 foods with the highest cadmium concentration.

New review of mitigation strategies

This year, FDA’s scientists published in a peer-reviewed journal a review of mitigation strategies to reduce dietary exposure to cadmium. Because plants uptake cadmium from the soil and “70 to 80% of dietary cadmium intake in humans comes from plant-based food,” the article focuses on methods to “reduce or prevent initial uptake by plants.” The authors explained that cadmium enters the food supply through natural and manmade sources, highlighting that cadmium often is a contaminant in phosphate fertilizers. Cadmium is also a contaminant in zinc used to galvanize steel.

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When it comes to testing heavy metals in food, the result is only as good as the lab.

Tom Neltner, J.D., Chemicals Policy Director and Boma Brown-West, Senior Manager.

“Even though the levels of a metal in any particular food is low, our overall
exposure adds up because many of the foods we eat contain them in small amounts.”

 

Dr. Conrad Choiniere, leader of FDA’s Toxic Elements Workgroup on April 20, 2018

Heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, and lead are present in most foods, whether conventional or organic, usually as the result of environmental contamination. Because heavy metals pose significant threats even at low levels, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has made reducing cumulative exposure a priority. The Baby Food Council – consisting of Beech-Nut Nutrition Company, Happy Family Organics, Earth’s Best, and Gerber Products Company and supported by Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF), Cornell University and EDF – shares this goal and seeks to reduce heavy metals in the companies’ products to as low as reasonably achievable using best-in-class management practices.

Through the Council, EDF is coordinating a proficiency testing program to enable retailers, food manufacturers, ingredient suppliers, and others to identify laboratories that are capable of measuring arsenic, cadmium, and lead at levels in the low parts per billion (ppb). The Council has arranged for FAPAS, a leading proficiency testing provider for the food and water testing industries, to manage the testing program.

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Latest federal data on lead in food suggests progress made in 2016 was fleeting

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Total Diet Study (TDS) is an important source of data for both the agency and the public to estimate exposure, track trends, and set priorities for chemical contaminants in food. EDF analyzed TDS data for samples the agency collected from 2003-2013 in our 2017 report to reveal that lead in food was a hidden health threat. In follow-up blogs using TDS data from 2014-2016, we reported that overall trends for detectable rates of lead appeared to be on the decline, especially in 2016. In our analysis, we summarized that the trends were both good news and bad news for children because there were stubbornly high rates of detectable lead in baby food teething biscuits, arrowroot cookies, carrots, and sweet potatoes.

In this blog, we analyze the latest lead in food TDS data, released by FDA in August, and we take a new look at the trends. Overall, the 2017 data reversed the progress in 2016, largely driven by the percent of samples[1] with detectable lead in prepared meals nearly doubling from 19% to 39%. The good news is that fruit juices continued their dramatic and steady drop in samples with detectable lead, from 67% in 2016 to 11% in 2017. When we compared results for baby foods to similar samples of regular fruits and vegetables, the most notable finding was that baby carrots and peeled and boiled carrots had significantly lower detection rates than baby food carrot puree. Additionally, we were surprised to find that 83 of 84 samples of canned fruit had detectable levels of lead.

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Too much cadmium and lead in kids’ food according to estimates by FDA

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a study in April estimating young children’s exposure to lead and cadmium from their diets and identifying food groups that are a significant source of these heavy metals. The study used data from the agency’s Total Diet Study (TDS) program for 2014 to 2016 and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) What We Eat in America (WWEIA) Survey for 2009 to 2014.[1]

The study is a reminder of how pervasive heavy metals are in children’s diets and that, while the levels are relatively low, the cumulative exposure is significant. Based on FDA’s analysis (Table 1 below), we estimate that about 2.2 million children exceeded the agency’s maximum daily intake (MDI) for lead at a given time. The results for cadmium are new and worrisome, with estimated daily intake (EDI) levels that are 3 to 4 times greater than lead. And while FDA has not yet set an MDI limit for cadmium, the average young child exceeds most of the relevant daily exposure limits set by other agencies. Clearly, cadmium warrants greater attention, but note that the evidence of neurotoxicity is still emerging.

Table 1: Young children’s estimated dietary intake (EDI) of lead and cadmium based on FDA’s TDS results for years 2014 to 2016 (based on hybrid method)

Age GroupLead Mean EDI Lead 90th Percentile EDICadmium Mean EDICadmium 90th Percentile EDI
1-6 years1.8 µg/day2.9 µg/day6.8 µg/day11.0 µg/day
1-3 years1.7 µg/day2.6 µg/day5.8 µg/day9.7 µg/day
4-6 years2.0 µg/day3.1 µg/day7.8 µg/day12.1 µg/day
LimitsFDA’s MDI is 3.0No MDL set by FDA. Intake exceeded most limits set by other agencies

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