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Selected tag(s): lead in food

FDA details its new push on heavy metals in food

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

In May 2017, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Food Safety and Nutrition (CFSAN) announced it had “established a Toxic Elements Working Group whose mission in part is to develop a strategy for prioritizing and modernizing the Center’s activities with respect to food/toxic element combinations using a risk-based approach.” FDA set a goal of limiting lead “to the greatest extent feasible.”

In April 2018, FDA released an interview with the Working Group’s chair, Conrad Choiniere, providing an update on its activities. An overarching point expressed by Choiniere during the interview is that “these metals [lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury] can have effects on children’s neurological development.” This affirmation of scientific evidence is a welcome sign from the agency. FDA’s key statements are:

  • Initial scope: Children’s exposure to “metals like lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury in foods, cosmetics, and dietary supplements.”
  • Approach: “Looking at all the metals across all foods rather than one contaminant, one food at a time.”
  • Initial findings: “Even though the level 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.”
  • Next steps:
    • “Finalizing the draft guidance that sets an action-level for the presence of inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereals and apple juice.”
    • “Begin reevaluating the specific lead levels that FDA has set for a variety of foods.”

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Heavy metals in food: Carrageenan as an example of the need to improve ingredient quality

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

Arsenic, cadmium and lead levels in carrageenan varied widely but were within international standards. This is not reassuring since current specifications for the heavy metals are inadequate. Food manufacturers can and should set tighter limits to better protect their customers. Consumers, especially those buying from internet-only retailers, need to ask the ingredient supplier how much of the heavy metals is acceptable.

In the fall of 2013, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) bought 10 samples of carrageenan from 5 companies sold through internet-only retailers to test for three heavy metals – lead, arsenic (total and inorganic), and cadmium. The agency published the results on its combination metals testing webpage in September 2016.

Each of these metals are carcinogens. In addition, lead and inorganic arsenic are widely acknowledged as harming children’s brain development even at low levels of exposure. EDF found that more than one million children consume lead in amounts that exceeds the maximum exposure level set by FDA in 1993, a level that subsequent research shows is of great risk to children’s health. Further, recent research has strengthened evidence of the relationship between low levels of lead exposure in adults and cardiovascular deaths. In 2011, the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) took the extraordinary step of withdrawing its previous tolerable intake level for lead because it could not determine a safe level of exposure for children.

In light of these risks, we must make every effort to reduce the levels of these heavy metals in food to the greatest extent possible – without undermining other food safety measures or compromising quality. A key step to success is examining the levels of heavy metals in all ingredients used to make a food since the risk is based on the cumulative exposure – even if the amounts in individual additives are small. With this in mind, we revisited FDA’s analysis of carrageenan.

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FDA on Lead in Grape Juice: Too Late, and Way Too Little Improvement

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

Update on May 12, 2018: Despite the concerns raised, the Codex Committee on Contaminants in Foods decided that lowering the limit for grape juice from 50 ppb to 40 ppb was sufficient.  The fill Commission will make a final decision at its July 2018 meeting.

On March 12, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will be leading the U.S. delegation in the Netherlands proposing that the Codex Alimentarius Commission adopt a maximum lead limit of 40 parts per billion (ppb) in grape juice. The current limit, set by Codex in the 1980s, is 50 ppb. While a small step in the right direction, FDA’s proposal falls woefully short of adequately protecting children from lead.

For context, the 40 ppb proposed Codex limit would be 2.6 times greater than the 15 ppb lead action level established for drinking water by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1991 and 8 times FDA’s limit of 5 ppb for bottled water. In addition, a child drinking a single 8-ounce serving of juice with a lead concentration of 40 ppb will be exposed to 160% of FDA’s maximum daily intake level of 6 micrograms of lead per day. This level, set in 1993, should be much lower because it does not reflect scientific discoveries of the past 25 years showing harm to children at lower levels.

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Good news and bad news for children: FDA’s 2014 to 2016 food testing for lead

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

In Environmental Defense Fund’s June 2017 “Lead in food: A hidden health threat” report, we evaluated the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) publicly available data for 2003 to 2013 from its Total Diet Study (TDS). Since the 1970s, the TDS has tracked metals, pesticides, and nutrients in food. We found that 20% of baby food samples had detectable levels of lead compared to 14% for other foods. We also identified eight food types where more than 40% of samples had detectable lead. Finally, based on an analysis from EPA, we estimated that more than 1 million young children exceeded FDA’s limit for lead and that eliminating lead from food would save society an estimated $27 billion annually.

In November 2017, FDA publicly released TDS data for 2014 and 2015. And this December, the agency provided us with TDS data for 2016 in response to our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. We evaluated the combined information[1] and have an update that is both good news and bad news. The good news is that the overall trends for detectable rates of lead in baby food and other food, especially in 2016, appear to be on the decline. There is a similar downward trend in apple and grape juice, especially the ones marketed as baby food. Unfortunately, there appeared to be stubbornly high rates of detectable lead in teething biscuits, arrowroot cookies, and baby food carrots and sweet potatoes.

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Children’s lead exposure: Relative contributions of various sources

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director and Dr. Ananya Roy is Health Scientist

Last week, we noted in our blog that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dropped the statement that paint, dust and soil are the most common sources of lead in its “Protect Your Family from Lead in Your Home” booklet. Property owners provide this booklet to prospective homebuyers and tenants in housing built before 1978. The change implicitly recognizes that there is no safe level of lead in the children’s blood, and we must reduce all sources of lead exposure. It also acknowledges that the relative contribution of air, water, food, soil, dust, and paint to children’s blood lead levels is complicated. Exposure varies significantly based on age of the home, the child’s race and age, the family’s income-level, and region of the country. Any simplification obscures these important differences.

EPA’s scientists made this clear in a model published earlier this year that pulled together the available data, divided children into three age categories, and assigned children in each category into ten groups based on their overall lead exposure. For each group, they estimated the relative contribution of air, water, food, and soil/dust (from paint). Not surprisingly, children living in older homes with lead-based paint hazards by far have the most exposure to lead. For 1 to 6 year olds in the top 90-100 percentile, more than 70% of the lead in their blood is from soil and dust. The contribution from food is 20% and drinking water is 10%. For infants, soil and dust contributes to 50% of the lead in blood, while 40% is from water and 10% from food.

Since there is no known safe level of lead in blood, we must do even more to reduce children's exposure to lead-contaminated soil and dust.

However, to prioritize action at a national level, it is important to understand how different sources contribute to lead exposure in the average child as well as the most-exposed child. We used the underlying EPA data to calculate the average relative source contribution of different sources to blood lead levels for infants from birth to six months old, for toddlers 1 to 2 years old, and young children from 1 to 6 years old. The results indicate that infants have a much higher source contribution of lead from water in comparison to older children (Figure 1). For the average child 1 to 6 years old, food is the largest source of lead exposure, with 50%, followed by soil/dust then water.

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Posted in Drinking Water, Emerging Science, EPA, Health Policy, Health Science, lead, Public Health / Also tagged , , , , , | Read 1 Response