This article from the medical perspective is accompanied by an article from the attorney perspective on lead exposures. See “Ramifications of FDA’s Proposed Action Levels for Heavy Metals in Baby Food.”

Lead poisoning in children has been a known risk for more than 100 years. Toxic exposures to lead and other heavy metals can lead to problems with learning, cognition and behavior. Lead damages the brain and nervous system, slows growth and development and can result in hearing and speech problems. Babies and small children are particularly susceptible to these effects due to the rapid rate at which they grow during this time period. The brain is developing rapidly during the period of 0-5 years, and heavy metals are toxic to the brain. Children’s bodies absorb more lead, excrete less of the lead absorbed, and the excess lead is deposited in the brain.

Lead exposures in childhood can come from many sources. The CDC lists lead-based paints in homes built prior to 1978, water pipes, toys, jewelry, imported candy, traditional home remedies, and certain jobs and hobbies that inadvertently cause parents to bring lead into the home, as some of the sources that expose children to lead. Crawling infants are closer to the sources of much of the environmental lead and thus have an increased exposure. Childhood exposure to lead has been drastically reduced since the 1980s largely due to the elimination of leaded gasoline. The average daily dietary exposures to lead for 1-3 year olds has fallen from 43 mcg in 1980 to 1 mcg as of 2016. The phasing out of leaded gasoline reduced the levels of air pollution as well as soil contamination of crops, resulting in a dramatic decline in lead exposure from foods since the 1980s. Parents, however, still have to watch the foods served to their children because lead leaches into food through soil contamination, via water runoff from highways, airports and industrial areas. Even food grown in a home garden can contain unacceptable levels of lead. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry provides advice and tools for lead screening of soil gathered from home and urban gardens as well as advice for reducing exposures in gardening. 

While lead encountered in baby food is minimal, governments have still sought to regulate the amount of lead allowed in foods. The World Health Organization lists lead as one of the top 10 chemicals of concern for infants and children. In 2021, the FDA released “Closer to Zero” to outline their actions for reducing lead and other heavy metals in the foods consumed by babies and small children. The FDA monitors contaminant levels in foods, establishes regulations and guidelines and works with food manufacturers to implement controls to minimize or limit the chemical hazards in foods. The FDA has now published new guidelines limiting the allowable amount of lead in processed baby foods to 20 parts per billion or less. The FDA estimates the lower allowable levels could result in a 24-27% reduction in exposure to lead.  

The American Academy of Pediatrics asserts there is no safe level of lead in food. It recommends serving a wide variety of foods to young children. Some foods contain more lead than others, and a varied diet helps to reduce the exposure to heavy metals and ensures a better-balanced diet for nutritional purposes. Offering proteins from a variety of sources, including ensuring fish are sourced from different areas of the globe and offering a variety of fish to children, will help limit exposures to heavy metals. 

In sum, children may be exposed to lead from a variety of sources. As our understanding of lead toxicity and its health effects on children has evolved, manufacturers, scientists, health organizations, and government agencies have made recommendations and taken steps to reduce or eliminate lead exposures. We will continue to track developments in childhood lead exposures and update this paper as needed.

This article was authored by Joy Key, RN in collaboration with Dana Clark, RN.

Womble Bond Dickinson’s Medical and Scientific Solutions team has helped corporate clients and their outside counsel succeed in the defense of individual product liability claims, multi-district litigation, and mass torts for more than 25 years by unraveling complex medical and scientific issues, allowing trial counsel to focus on winning – whether that be at trial or positioning the case for resolution. For more information about Medical & Scientific Solutions and their services, click here.