Heavy metals are widely present in the environment and can get into our food. While environmental contamination (e.g. from soil and water) likely is the main source, they could also enter food through processing.

EDF works to reduce exposure to lead, arsenic, and cadmium as they are the heavy metals most commonly found in food and they have also been identified by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as priorities for reduction due to their impact on children’s neurodevelopment. We have a particular focus on lead as part of our broader strategy to protect children from all sources of lead exposure.

See how EDF is working to reduce lead exposure

Using FDA data, EDF has conducted several analyses showing progress in reducing heavy metal levels in foods and highlighting areas for improvement. Our 2017 report, revealed that lead was frequently detected in certain children’s foods, and follow-up blogs have indicated that overall rates of detectable lead have generally declined, though the rates remain high for specific types of food. Additional studies from FDA, Consumer Reports, Healthy Babies Bright Futures and Congress have continued to draw attention to the problem of heavy metals in food.

Why heavy metals are a concern

Heavy metals are potent nueurotoxicants that can impair children’s normal brain development. While the levels in any one food may be low, the cumulative effect of dietary heavy metals can be significant.

Below are key health concerns associated with exposure:

  • Lead: Impaired brain development and lower IQs in children, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
  • Inorganic arsenic: Impaired cognitive development in children, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer.
  • Cadmium: Kidney disease, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. A better understanding is needed of the neurological impacts of cadmium exposure.


Fortunately, there is progress happening on this issue.

FDA has taken important steps, including by establishing a Toxic Elements Working Group to work towards solutions to limit lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury in food, cosmetics, and dietary supplements. As part of the effort, the agency in 2018 lowered the maximum daily intake of lead for children.

FDA now should take further action following the decision in 2021 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to reduce its blood lead reference value, which is used to identify children with higher levels of lead in their blood and to encourage agencies to take steps to reduce the harmful effects of lead.

More recently, FDA issued its Closer to Zero Action Plan, outlining steps the agency will take to reduce exposures to toxic metals in children’s food. The plan is a step forward, however, there are additional actions the agency should take to limit exposures to heavy metals in foods, including considering the cumulative effects of heavy metals on neurodevelopment and moving up deadlines to draft action levels for arsenic and cadmium.

Due to the complexity of tackling this issue, renewed action and ongoing vigilance is needed by all stakeholders to work towards solutions to reducing heavy metal levels in food.

Additional resources

Read more on the EDF Health blog