Lead Found in Juice Boxes and Children’s Food

Juice box
Image by mmatins via Flickr

The California group, The Environmental Law Fund released a report on June 9 alleging that lead in substantial amounts had been found in children’s food including juice boxes of apple juice, grape juice, packaged pears and peaches (including baby food), and fruit cocktail.  Most troubling was that many brands of organic food were included including Earth’s Best, Santa Cruz Organics, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Walnut Acres, O. Organics, R.W. Knudson,  and brands such as Gerbers, Del Monte, Safeway,  Motts and Krogers. They provided a list of those brands that did and did not meet California standards of 0.5 micrograms of lead per ounce.  This is especially troublesome because children may have 3 to 5 servings of the foods, and the violation was based upon a single serving.

There is no safe amount of lead for children according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.  Lead causes learning disabilities, brain problems and physical problems which are long term.

Lead is cumulative, comes from multiple sources and can build up in the body, stored in the bones.  In our youth, we bank bone for old age when we would normally lose it.  During pregnancy, osteoporosis, old age or after bone breaks,  the lead is released into the blood stream where it can migrate to the brain.

Nearly 40 percent of us have toxic levels of lead in our bodies at official levels (see more below).  We often attribute symptoms like  headaches, nausea, memory loss, trouble concentrating, poor coordination, tremors, insomnia, ADD or ADHD, depression, low sex drive, or constipation to lifestyle or other causes.

The brains of adults who were exposed to lead ...
Adults exposed to lead as children have less brain capacity, Colors show areas of brain loss. Image via Wikipedia

A study published in 2006 in the medical journal Circulation, following 13,946 adults over 12 years showed that a blood level of lead over two micrograms/deciliter caused dramatic increases in heart attacks, strokes and death. In fact, after controlling for all other risk factors, including cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking and inflammation, the researchers found that the risk of death from all causes in people with a lead level that high (2 micrograms/dl) increased by 25 percent. Deaths from heart disease increased by 55 percent, risk of heart attacks increased by 151 percent and risk of stroke increased by 89 percent.

How does lead do this? Lead competes for calcium receptors and can displace that essential mineral.  Lead and calcium ions are sufficiently similar that some degree of competition and mimicry occurs in the nervous system. Inside the cells, calcium usually activates protein kinase C. which leads to the release of the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine. Recent studies have shown that extremely tiny concentrations of lead can also activate protein kinase C. Prolonged stimulation of this “second messenger” enzyme by lead would produce excessive release of neurotransmitters and hurt the developing brain.  Protein kinase C also affects smooth muscle in the gut,eye and blood vessles, heart muscle, platelet production, neurons used in memory, adipocytes used in glucose and when activated by tumor promoter phorbol ester can increase oncogenes and promote cancer.

Lead is removed by oral or intravenous chelation, which must be done in such a way that the lead is not redeposited elsewhere in the body.  EDTA is the most common chelator for lead, developed by Gary Gordon in the 1950s and oral forms are readily available and cheapCilantro and cholerella, commonly touted as chelators on the web do not chelate lead (and were based on rather bogus Japanese studies that did not test for base levels and used muscle testing instead of assays.)  Gordon has tested the stool and urine of people using those substances finding no increase in excretion.  Garlic and malic acid from apples do have some effect when combinied with oral EDTA.  Ground ivy, a traditional remedy for “painter’s colic” or lead poisoning probably has some effect as well.  I myself take oral EDTA, a vinegar derivative, that has a steady low level effect and will not dump the lead elsewhere in the body.   It increases  lead excretion fivefoldVitamin D and weight-bearing exercise will help prevent osteoporosis so that lead remains sequestered in the bones.

Now it is true that lead levels have gone down since the 1950s when leaded gasoline and paint, burning coal without recapture, lead soldered pipes and lead arsenate pesticides were common.   Fifty years ago, the average blood levels of lead were about 40 micrograms/deciliter. The level now considered “safe” by the government has continued to fall and is now considered less than 10 micrograms/deciliter.  But note that those levels are far above the 2 micrograms/decilitier used in the study.  And we still have old houses, lead in pipes, pesticides and coal, just somewhat lower exposures.  Not to mention lead crystal, ceramic glazes, tin cans and contaminated water.

Ground ivy at Niagara Falls State Park
Ground ivy  for lead poisoning  Image by JacobEnos via Flickr

Lead doesn’t go away.  Elevated levels are found far from roads:  45% of lead particulates are found within 20 kilometers from major roads  and 35% are found more than 200 kilometers  (125 miles) away, albeit at lower concentrations.  It precipitated from the air, falling to the ground where it went into the soil, waterways and the plants.   Plants are good at taking up heavy metals- indeed John Todd of Ocean Arks International specializes in waste water treatment plants that create living swamps where plants take up pollutants, leaving clean water behind.  It can be found in herbs, grains, fruits and vegetables that grow near roadways and in animals that feed upon those products.

Lead warning on a gas pump at Keeler's Korner,...
Image via Wikipedia

Not all heavy metals in plants are actually bioavailable. Lead in soil is 30% bioavailable according to the EPA while World Trade Center dust had 89-97% bioavailability.  Contaminated water and milk have about 42-47% bioavailability. Rats fed contaminated fruits absorbed 17-20%.  The absorption by children differs from adults and the acidity of juice probably enhances absorption.  We don’t have a good idea what is excreted versus absorbed. My gut feeling is that in a refined and acidic product like juice, if the lead is there, it is mostly available.   But I am less convinced that we get all of the heavy metals locked up in fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs which are present with fiber and sometimes fat.

It is possible that  if you eat lots of zinc the lead gets bound to zinc-induced metallothionien in the intestinal cells, and gets sloughed off.    We simply don’t know enough to say how much of the lead in plants is bioavailable.

That can be important because we don’t know whether the lead in the juices, fruits and similar products came from polluted farms, or were polluted by lead solder or tin parts on machines,  pesticides or materials in the containers.  We do know that not all of the products were high in lead so investigations may find ways of reducing lead exposure by discovering what the companies that had no dangerous residues do differently.

Do go look at the list of safe and contaminated juices and children’s foods.  But water is a far better source of fluids than is juice and fruit is best eaten fresh.

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