To learn more about the issue, access resources and watch a recording of our EARTH DAY Dialogue “Heavy Metals In Our Food: Understanding Risks and Moving Towards Solutions,” with experts from Pure Earth, Consumer Reports, the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and more.
The following Op-Ed by Pure Earth President Richard Fuller, and Executive Director Drew McCartor, was first published in The Hill on Feb 6, 2023.
The recently released draft guidance by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) setting allowable levels of lead in baby food at 20 parts per billion is progress, but not nearly enough.
Although baby food contamination is particularly alarming, it is not the only food plagued by toxic heavy metal contamination. Consumer Reports, Clean Label Project, Healthy Babies Bright Futures, Environmental Defense Fund, the U.S. Congress and other entities have documented lead, cadmium, mercury, arsenic and other contaminants in chocolate, spices, fruit juices, rice and more.
As the evidence mounts, so do the critical questions. Why is this happening? Where does the lead and other heavy metals originate? How does it get into foods? And how can we stop it and protect our health and that of our children?
Of course, the food companies should improve their testing, sourcing and transparency throughout their supply chains. And Congress should reintroduce and pass The Baby Food Safety Act of 2021, but that is not a long-term solution. In a global economy with complex food ingredient supply chains, solutions will require us to stem lead contamination beyond our own borders. We must solve this at the source.
Food items can become contaminated by heavy metals in different ways and at different points in complex supply chains. Our investigators at Pure Earth have seen firsthand how agricultural soil can be polluted by industrial wastewater, resulting in contaminated crops. Pesticide residue containing lead and arsenic can be another source of contamination that migrates into foods.
The recent Consumer Reports study on lead and cadmium in dark chocolate cites evidence published by As You Sow revealing how cacao plants soak up cadmium from polluted soil and the cocoa beans dried on lead-laden soil and dust result in contamination of the final product. This report also contains actionable solutions.
The practice of adulterating spices with lead pigments to add color and weight is significant in some locations. In Bangladesh, researchers from Stanford University found that producers regularly added lead chromate to turmeric to meet demand for a bright, yellow product. Pure Earth investigators discovered similar situations in northeastern India and in the Republic of Georgia, where a national health survey revealed elevated lead levels in 40 percent of children. It is suspected that contaminated spices are present across northern Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. By collaborating with the Georgian government, Pure Earth helped solve the lead-adulteration of spices in less than 2 years.
When popular products like cacao and turmeric are contaminated, it affects consumers in multiple nations across the entire global supply chain. Last year, another alarming study from Consumer Reports found one-third of spices on U.S. supermarket shelves, even those from well-known brands, were contaminated with toxic metals.
There is still much we do not know, and investments in research are critical.
What we are sure of, from decades of experience implementing solutions in industrial pollution hot spots, is that this awful game of whack-a-mole will continue until a commitment to solve this problem at the source becomes a major part of the effort.
A start has been made thanks to the efforts of Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.). The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2022 included “not less than $3 million” for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to reduce global exposures to lead. While this is a promising start, it is $7 million less than what was originally proposed. The fiscal 2023 State, Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill contains another $3 million for USAID to address lead pollution in low- and middle-income countries. But the agency has not yet dispersed these funds.
Amid the gloom, there is some good news. A national-level biomonitoring report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that in the most recent two-year study cycle, blood lead levels in children ages 1 to 5 dropped to their lowest level on record.
While the United States has seen a steady reduction in childhood lead poisoning since the 1970s, in low- and middle-income countries, the level of lead in children’s blood remains startlingly high. According to “The Toxic Truth,” a report Pure Earth co-published with UNICEF in 2020, lead poisoning affects approximately one-third of the world’s children.
When it comes to pollution, we are all connected. There is an invisible toxic thread that links workers who are poisoned during the production of goods, and consumers poisoned when consuming them. Reducing toxic heavy metal contamination at the point of production is the right thing to do for our children, and all children across the world.