When parents think about the dangers of lead, it’s paint and water that most come to mind as potential sources. But a report published Thursday by the Environmental Defense Fund raises questions about another, surprising possibility: food.
More specifically, baby food.
The group looked at data from more than 12,200 food samples that were analyzed from 2003 to 2013 as part of the Food and Drug Administration’s Total Diet Study, which tracks nutrients, pesticides and metals.
What it found was striking. Of the 2,164 baby food samples, 20 percent had detectable levels of lead. Of the 10,064 general food samples, 14 percent contained detectable lead levels. The types of baby food most affected included grape, apple, pear and mixed fruit juices; root vegetables such as sweet potatoes and carrots; and arrowroot cookies and teething biscuits.
The group also found that more baby food versions of apple and grape juice and carrots had detectable lead than the “regular” versions.
While the amount of lead found in most samples was tiny, Sarah Vogel, vice president for health at the Environmental Defense Fund, said the results were “concerning” especially for children younger than 6. Years of studies have shown that children exposed to lead can experience behavioral problems and develop lower IQs and that the damage can be irreversible.
Vogel noted that even small amounts of exposure can add up and that scientists believe there’s “no safe levels of lead in blood.” She called for urgent action by policymakers to look more closely at the issue of lead in food.
The source of the lead in baby food remains unclear.
Tom Neltner, the group’s chemicals policy director, said the possibilities could include lead in soil and dust or in the processing for plastics used as containers. Companies need to investigate, he said. “We think food manufacturers should have a good idea where it is getting into the food.”
Neltner said the findings don’t mean parents should stop feeding their children packaged baby food, but he suggested they consult with pediatricians and, with the food brands they use, contact companies to ask about their testing processes for lead.