Unleaded Juice: Tougher limits on lead in juice would bring more than a billion dollars in socioeconomic benefits

Tom Neltner, Senior Director, Safer Chemicals

This is the second in our Unleaded Juice blog series exploring how the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets limits for toxic elements like lead, arsenic, and cadmium in food and its implications for the agency’s Closer To Zero program.

When developing its draft action levels for lead in juice, FDA started with the current 50 parts per billion limit and considered progressively tighter levels, settling on 10 ppb for apple juice and 20 ppb for other juices. FDA did not consider more protective limits despite acknowledging that there is no known safe level of children’s exposure to lead – which can harm a child’s developing brain – and that many in the food industry already meet the lower draft levels.

FDA also failed to quantify the socioeconomic benefits of its action. While this task is difficult in many settings, it is entirely reasonable for lead because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has developed a quantitative model when considering rules to protect children from exposure to lead.[1]

Building off of the EPA model, we calculated in 2017 that eliminating lead from all children’s food would yield more than $27 billion a year in socioeconomic benefits. The benefits represent increased lifetime earnings for the 4 million children born each year that result from preventing the loss of 1.5 million IQ points. The calculation is based on a mean estimated exposure of 2.9 micrograms of lead per day (µg/day) from an EPA 2017 report that relied on FDA’s Total Diet Study (TDS) food testing results from 2003-13.[2]

In 2019, FDA published its own exposure estimate using its TDS data from 2014-16, estimating that the average child aged 1 to 6 consumed 1.8 µg/day of lead – down from 2.9 in EPA’s 2017 report. FDA’s more recent data revealed a trend to lower lead contamination. In addition, the agency analyzed the samples using a more sensitive laboratory method that allowed for more precise estimates when lead contamination was less than 10 ppb. Using FDA’s 2019 estimate, we calculate that eliminating lead would prevent the loss of 1 million IQ points in children born each year, enabling them to earn additional $17 billion over their lifetime.

We recognize that translating the harm to children’s brains caused by lead into dollars and cents is insensitive. Nonetheless, it is a tool that provides important context to evaluate the claims of economic burden by food manufacturers.

We also recognize that completely eliminating lead is not possible given the widespread contamination of farmland, however the total gives a sense of the potential benefits from more aggressive action towards the goal of reducing exposure Closer to Zero.

Unfortunately, FDA’s supporting documentation for its draft action level did not provide sufficient information to determine the how much juice contributes to the estimated mean exposure of 1.8 µg/day for young children. A realistic estimate, however, is that juice makes up 20% of young children’s total exposure to lead. If those levels can be cut by one-third, the societal benefits from the investment in our children’s future would be $1.1 billion a year.

For these reasons, we encourage FDA to use the EPA model and include consideration of the socioeconomic benefits of more aggressive action levels as it sets lower limits for lead in juice. The science supports a more rigorous analysis, and the potential benefits demand it.

[1] See EPA’s 2008 Approach Used for Estimating Changes in Children’s IQ from Lead Dust Generated During Renovations, Repair and Painting in Residences and Child-Occupied Facilities or its 2021 Economic Analysis Appendices for the Final Lead and Copper Rule Revisions.

[2] See Appendix 1 of the report for the methodology.

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