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  1. Environmental Contaminants in Food

Lead in Food, Foodwares, and Dietary Supplements

Average Daily Dietary Exposure to Lead for 1-3 Year Olds

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The FDA's work to reduce the use of lead in cans combined with the phaseout of lead in gasoline resulted in a dramatic decline in lead exposure from foods by the mid-1980s.

Lead may be present in food because it is in the environment where foods are grown, raised, or processed. Lead that is in the soil, air, and water may be present naturally and from human-activities. Levels of lead in the environment can vary depending on the geographical makeup of local areas and proximity to current or past pollution, for example, from the widespread use of lead in a variety of products, such as plumbing materials, paint, and gasoline. While many commercial and industrial uses of lead have been phased out, there are still some products made in the U.S. that contain lead and it is still used in products made in other countries.

Lead in the environment can settle on or be taken up by plants, including fruits, vegetables and grains, as well as be ingested by animals. It is more common in certain foods and in foods grown in geographical areas with higher levels of lead. The use of lead pipes can also contaminate water used in food production and lead used in pottery or other food contact surfaces can leach into foods.

Lead is toxic to humans and can affect people of any age or health status. The FDA monitors and regulates levels of lead in foods, including dietary supplements, and cosmetics. While it is not possible to prevent or remove lead entirely from foods, the levels in food can be reduced. By law, food manufacturers have a responsibility to implement controls as needed to significantly minimize or prevent exposure to chemical hazards—including lead.

To determine if the level of lead in a food is a potential health concern, we consider the toxicity of lead and exposure based on the level of lead measured in the food and consumption. We also may consider specific population groups (e.g., very young children). If the agency finds that the level of lead causes the food to be unsafe, we take action, which may include working with the manufacturer to resolve the issue and taking steps to prevent the product from entering, or remaining in, the U.S. market.

The FDA’s goal is to limit consumer exposure to lead, with a focus on protecting the very young, through developing regulations, action levels, and advice to consumers. The agency considers the health effects of the ‘whole food,’ which includes the potential harmful health effects of specific contaminants that may be present, as well as the food’s nutrients that are vital to growth and development for babies and small children and help promote health and prevent disease throughout our lifespan.

For more information about our specific activities to reduce exposure to arsenic, lead, mercury, and cadmium from foods consumed by babies and young children please visit the FDA’s Closer to Zero page.

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