FDA’s Outdated Lead Standards Put the Public’s Health at Risk

Health and environmental groups call for agency to take immediate action on lead exposure

December 9, 2020
Sam Lovell, (202) 572-3544, slovell@edf.org

Today, a group of organizations sent a formal petition to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) urging the agency to revise its outdated standards for lead in food to better protect the public, and especially children, from the impacts of lead exposure. Specifically, the petition calls on the agency to stop allowing lead to be added to materials that contact food, to update its guidance to better protect against the risk of lead exposure, and to tighten its limits for lead in bottled water. These are simple steps FDA can immediately take in the effort to reduce widespread exposure to lead, and the irreversible harm the heavy metal poses, in our food supply.  

The petition highlights three specific opportunities to reduce lead in food and beverages:

  • Reduce the amount of lead allowed in bottled water from 5 to 1 parts per billion consistent with American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations.
  • Ban lead in tin that coats food cans. An Environmental Defense Fund analysis of FDA data found lead detected in 98% of certain canned fruits compared to only 3% in fresh or frozen varieties — pointing to the canning process as the source of the heavy metal. FDA reported finding lead in almost half of canned food it sampled.
  • Stop adding lead to brass or bronze used in equipment to dispense water or brew tea and coffee. There is ample evidence that this lead leaches into the beverages.  

This is a problem because there is no safe level of lead in the blood. Lead can harm a child’s brain development, resulting in learning and behavioral problems, and it can cause heart disease in adults. While the levels in any one food may be low, the cumulative effect of lead - and other heavy metals - in the diet can be significant. Additionally, an EPA analysis has found that, for more than 70% of children in the US, the dominant source of lead exposure is from food. 

Several studies in recent years, including from EDF, Consumer Reports, and Healthy Babies Bright Futures, have highlighted the persistent problem of heavy metals in food - and particularly baby food. Though contamination from soil and water is a major source, lead can also enter food through processing and contact with materials containing the heavy metal. 

Recognizing the harm posed by heavy metal exposure, FDA established a working group in May 2017 to evaluate lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury levels in food and prioritize reduction strategies. While the agency has taken several important steps since, it has yet to take the simple actions outlined in this petition - which would yield significant benefits by driving down lead levels in food. 

The petition describes how FDA should prohibit lead as an additive to food contact articles (e.g. food packaging, processing or handling equipment, and cookware), update its guidance on lead limits in food and food ingredients and tighten its limit for lead in bottled water in keeping with the latest scientific evidence.

The petitioners are: Environmental Defense Fund, Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, Center for Environmental Health, Center for Food Safety, Childhood Lead Action Project, Clean Label Project, Consumer Reports, Defend Our Health, Environmental Working Group, Health Babies Bright Futures, and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. 

The agency should immediately put the petition out for public comment. Under its rules, FDA must respond to the petition within 180 days.

“With all that we know about the dangers of lead exposure – especially for children – FDA needs to move from analysis to action in its effort to reduce exposure to heavy metals,” said Tom Neltner, EDF’s Chemicals Policy Director. “We know that lead gets into food; by stopping its addition to materials that contact food and tightening the bottled water standard, the agency can take meaningful action toward better protecting everyone from lead.”

“We have known since the 1700s that these metals, when used as food additives, are poisons. Now, we know that even tiny amounts of these metals as food contact substances cause harm to developing brains and bodies. It is past time for the FDA to act.” -  Jaydee Hanson, Policy Director, Center for Food Safety.

“All parents want to make the best choices for their children,” said Laura Brion, Executive Director of the Childhood Lead Action Project. “But what can they do if safe options aren’t on the grocery store shelves? The FDA needs to do its job and get toxic lead out of our food and water.”

“The American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization, the Centers of Disease Control, the Food & Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency ALL say there is no safe level of lead. Reforming our antiquated regulations around lead exposure is necessary to protect Americans and especially vulnerable populations.” — Jaclyn Bowen MPH, MS, Executive Director of Clean Label Project.

“It’s long past time for the FDA to take action to address these completely unnecessary and avoidable sources of lead exposure,” said Patrick MacRoy, Deputy Director of Defend our Health. “The cumulative burden of lead in our food and bottled water is harming the brains of our children while adding to the number of cardiovascular deaths in adults. Our petition requests changes that will reduce this burden that should have been implemented long ago.”

“Even small amounts of lead harms the nervous system, especially for children,” said EWG’s Vice President for Science Investigations Olga Naidenko, PhD. “Exposure to lead causes lasting damage to the brain which is why it is essential to get lead out of food and food packaging. The FDA must take strong measures to make sure children are not exposed to lead from foods and beverages they love.”

“While we’ve known the lead is a poison for centuries, the more recent science has shown that even tiny amounts of lead can cause great harm, especially to the developing brain both before and after birth. The FDA needs to fully acknowledge the new science by modernizing their standards to protect pregnant women, their babies and everyone else.” - Charlotte Brody, RN, National Director, Healthy Babies Bright Futures.

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