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Silent Threat: Understanding Lead Poisoning

Last updated: April 1, 2024

From contaminated food products to concerns about popular drinkware, lead has been in the news a lot in the past several months.

Parents’ fears about lead are founded. Kids who are exposed often don’t look sick, but even small amounts of lead can harm the brain and cause learning and behavior difficulties.

“It’s important for parents to know the risks and take steps to protect kids from lead exposure,” says Dr. Michelle Gerow, a Pediatrician with ThedaCare Physicians Pediatrics-Neenah.  

Answering Top Questions About Lead

What happened with the applesauce outbreak?

In late 2023, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recalled certain brands of cinnamon applesauce and apple puree that were found to contain high levels of lead and chromium. The products were sold under the brand names WanaBana, Schnucks, and Weis.

The FDA traced the contamination to cinnamon that was included in the pouches. To date, more than 400 kids spanning 44 states, including Wisconsin, have been poisoned in the outbreak.

Chromium is made up of several compounds and is a naturally occurring element with trace levels normally found in the diet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The exact form of chromium in the recalled applesauce products is unclear. However, lead chromate previously has been reported as a contaminant in spices and foods.

“While the health effects of chromium are difficult to predict in this scenario, we know that there is no safe level of lead,” the CDC stated.

The CDC advises that people should not eat cinnamon-containing apple purée or applesauce products included in the FDA recall announcements. Anyone who may have eaten the affected products should talk with their health care provider. 

How about the cinnamon recall?

In early March, the FDA also recalled several brands of ground cinnamon, mainly sold at discount stories including Family Dollar and Dollar Tree. Consumers should dispose of any of the recalled products that they may have in their homes.

Lead can make it into spices in several ways. These include natural sources such as soil and water, leaded gasoline, and through the manufacturing, storage, or shipping process.

“Historically, lead chromate has [also] been illegally added to certain spices increase to their weight and enhance their color, which increases the monetary value of the adulterated spices,” the FDA states.

The organization goes on to say it suspects the cinnamon’s manufacturer intentionally altered the product for economically motivated reasons.

What about lead in water bottles?

In recent months, concerns have arisen about lead used in the manufacture of popular water bottles, most notably Stanley cups. Stanley released a statement saying that while it uses lead in manufacturing its products, no lead comes into contact with consumers.

Though the company is facing a lawsuit about the use of lead, experts have widely agreed with the company’s assertion that consumers are highly unlikely to come into contact with lead through the products. At the same time, some experts question the decision to use lead when many other water bottle brands do not.

What are other sources of lead?

Dust from lead house paint remains the biggest lead hazard in the United States, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The use of lead paint stopped in 1978, so older homes pose a risk. Lead also may exist in brass fixtures, service lines carrying water to homes, and lead solder used in plumbing.

The United States tries to monitor for lead in food and toys. However, lead also can appear in certain imported products, including spices, candies, cosmetics, and nutritional supplements.

“The health effects of lead exposure are more harmful to children less than 6 years of age because their bodies are still developing and growing rapidly,” according to the CDC. “Young children also tend to put their hands or other objects, which may be contaminated with lead dust, into their mouths, so they are more likely to be exposed to lead than older children.”

What does lead poisoning look like, and what should people do if they suspect it?

“Children with lead exposure may have no apparent acute symptoms,” the CDC states. “However, even low levels of lead have been associated with learning and behavior problems, hearing and speech problems, and slowed growth and development.”

Kids exposed to large amounts of lead may develop symptoms of acute lead poisoning. These include:

  • Abdominal pain, constipation, and nausea
  • Anemia
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Severe neurological symptoms (including seizures, encephalopathy, and coma)

The only way to detect lead in children is with a blood test. Parents whose kids have eaten contaminated products or who are otherwise concerned should talk to their child’s health care provider. 

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services has released a recommendation calling for universal lead blood testing for all children at the ages of 1 and 2, as well as for any child between the ages of 3 and 5 who hasn’t been tested previously.

How can parents keep kids safe?

The most important step parents can take is to try to prevent lead exposure.

“Talk to your child’s doctor if you have worries about lead,” Dr. Gerow says. “Beyond that, ensure your child eats a balanced diet that includes foods rich in calcium, iron, and vitamin C. These may help keep lead out of the body. Finally, remember to keep your child’s brain engaged through enriching activities like reading, games, and puzzles.”

Make an appointment for new health concerns or routine care.

Tags: children’s health food contamination Lead poisoning pediatrics Stanley cups

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