Using nutrition to limit exposure to lead poisoning

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Using nutrition to limit exposure to lead poisoning

While lead exposure and poisoning is not often talked about, each of us should take precautions to prevent coming into contact with it. The more any of us are exposed to it, especially for long periods of time, the greater risk of it building up in the body.  Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems. And though children are more susceptible to high levels of lead, adults also can be at risk due to various factors.  One way to reduce lead’s impact on health is by eating a healthy diet which can help decrease its absorption by the body.

How does a person get exposed to lead?

Lead is an indestructible metal element; once inside, the body cannot alter it or easily excrete it.  Both children and adults are susceptible to health effects from lead exposure and can be exposed in many ways.  Children are at a significant risk for the following reasons:

·      If they live in a house built before 1978 where lead paint may have been used and are exposed to lead paint chips or dust.

·      Children living in poor neighborhoods in older, rundown homes are more likely to be exposed, however lead poisoning does not discriminate between racial or economic subgroups of children.

·      Children’s behavior puts them more at risk of lead exposure – putting hands and toys in their mouth that lead dust may have settled on, they are shorter and are more likely to breathe lead-contaminated dust and soil as well as fumes close to the ground, and the percent of lead absorbed in the gut is estimated to be as much as five to ten times greater in infants and children than in adults.

Adults are at risk for the following reasons:

·      Occupational jobs – lead-related industries such as lead smelting, refining, and manufacturing industries.

·      Home renovations that involve scraping, remodeling or otherwise disturbing of lead-based paint.

·      Certain hobbies such as artistic painting, car repair, glazed pottery making, stained-glass making, target shooting.

The effects of lead contamination

Children are much more vulnerable to lead contamination than adults.  The effects of lead poisoning can damage the brain and central nervous system leading to impaired thinking, reasoning, perception, and other academic skills, as well as hearing impairment, kidney malfunction, decreased growth, iron-deficiency anemia, and may exacerbate hyperactive behavior.

Adults may exhibit neurological effects of peripheral neuropathy, fatigue, irritability, impaired concentration, hearing loss, seizures, nausea, constipation, anemia, miscarriages/stillbirths, and reduced sperm count and motility.

How to avoid lead

·      Always wash hands with uncontaminated water before eating

·      Do not use imported pottery or leaded crystal to store or serve food

·      Regularly clean toys, pacifiers, floors, windowsills, and other surfaces using liquid cleaners that control dust

·      Wipe or remove shoes before entering your home

·      Get your home tested for lead if it was built before 1978

How nutrition can fight back lead poisoning

The good news is a person can fight back with nutrition to combat the effects of lead exposure.  The key is minimizing the amount of lead absorbed and stored in the bones.  There are two minerals and one vitamin having a pivotal role in decreasing lead absorption – calcium, iron and vitamin C.  If a child’s body is deficient in these nutrients, lead absorption is increased and the child will retain more of the lead than they would have otherwise.

Start by reading the nutrition facts labels on food and look for foods containing 20% or more of the daily value for calcium, iron and vitamin C. Choosing foods high in these three key nutrients can make a difference on lead absorption. 

Calcium’s role

Calcium fortifies bones where lead is stored.  The stronger the bones, the less likely lead will be absorbed.  Having sufficient calcium in the body can help block the absorption of lead.  The following foods are rich in calcium:

·      Milk and milk products like cheese, yogurt, and cottage cheese

·      Green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale

·      Tofu

·      Calcium-enriched orange juice

·      Canned salmon with the bones

Iron’s role

Iron and lead look very similar to the body.  When there is more iron in the body than lead, the body will absorb the iron.  The following foods are rich in iron:

·      Lean red meats – the deeper the red, the more iron it contains

·      Tuna and salmon

·      Dried beans

·      Chicken and turkey

·      Nuts or sunflower seeds

·      Spinach and other green leafy vegetables

·      Iron-fortified cereals

·      Dried fruits, such as raisins and prunes

·      Peanut butter

Vitamin C’s role

Vitamin C helps the body absorb more iron and calcium and works together with iron to prevent lead from being absorbed into the body tissue and bones.  The following foods are rich in vitamin C:

·      Citrus fruits and their juices – Oranges, tangerines, grapefruit, lemons, and limes

·      Red bell peppers

·      Broccoli

·      Tomatoes

·      Potatoes with the skin

·      Sweet potatoes

·      Strawberries

·      Kiwi fruit

·      Cantaloupe

·      Mango

·      Papaya

Foods to avoid

·      Foods that have fallen to the floor and may have picked up lead dust.

·      Foods grown in lead-contaminated soil.

·      Avoid eating food off of glazed ceramic dishes or crystal.

·      Food stored in printed plastic bread bags as the ink used for the wrapper may contain lead

Putting it all together

Decreasing exposure to lead contamination is important for both children and adults.  Keep in mind good nutrition plays an important role in reducing lead exposure but it is only one part of the solution of protecting children and adults.  The best way to prevent lead poisoning is to have your home inspected for all possible sources of lead.  By combining a healthy diet rich in calcium, iron and vitamin C along with reducing sources of exposure to lead can spare children and adults serious health problems in the future. 

Learn how to protect yourself and your children from lead exposure in your home by reading this extensive guide from the United States Environmental Protection Agency on reducing lead contamination.