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Lead, arsenic, mercury, and cadmium are heavy metals that are dangerous to human health — especially babies and children!
Although small amounts of heavy metal exposure are somewhat inevitable, the effects can add up over time and have health consequences even impacting your child’s brain development. So, it’s extremely important to know how to protect your kids from heavy metals to prevent exposure as much as possible.
What are Heavy Metals?
Heavy metals are a class of chemical elements. Generally, these are toxic metals (and yes, they really are heavy. Think of how dense lead is, for example). While heavy metals naturally occur in the dirt, water, and air, you can also find them in consumer products like jewelry, toys, beauty products, and in building materials like old paint and pipes.
How Are We Exposed to Heavy Metals?
Exposure to heavy metals can occur in a variety of ways – through drinking water, breathing dust from old industrial processes, or even through mouthing some toys contaminated with heavy metals. Generally, children may ingest heavy metals through eating or drinking after touching something with heavy metals or they may gain exposure through inhaling dust that contains heavy metals.
The health concern from exposure really depends on both the heavy metal type and the amount of exposure (a high amount in a short amount of time, or a low amount over a long period of time). But the main problem with any level of exposure to heavy metals is that they do cause long-lasting damaging health effects, and children are at the highest risk of both exposure and health consequences.
It’s important to note that often, children may be exposed to more than one heavy metal at a time. Unfortunately, the impact of these metals compounds on itself – meaning a mixture of metals is more hazardous than just one of them.
Fortunately, there are ways to prevent and reduce heavy metal exposures. Read on to learn more about some of the most dangerous and prevalent heavy metals. And learn how to best limit your child’s exposure to them!
Lead is one of the most toxic heavy metals. As the CDC says, there is no safe level of lead exposure. Even the smallest amount can have an impact on a child. Unfortunately, this is the most common toxicants children are exposed to, even here in the United States.
The other issue with lead is that once there is lead in your body, it really doesn’t leave. The lead eventually settles into bones and stays there for a long time. The cumulative exposure can add up and result in health issues.
Health Effects of Lead
The World Health Organization tells us that high levels of lead exposure can have effects on almost every system in the body. It affects the cardiovascular system, kidney function, and the reproductive system.
And lower levels of lead exposure cause other, more subtle effects, including lowered IQ, impaired memory, and problems with attention deficit and hyperactivity. You can see how these effects can cause children problems in school or even in relationships in social situations. In fact, studies show that lead exposure correlates to an increased risk of committing violent crimes!
Where is Lead Found?
Historically, lead could be found in leaded gasoline, household paint, even in old pipes. What you might not know is that these old chemicals are still around us, so it’s especially important to learn how to avoid lead.
You might have heard of the Flint, Michigan Water Crisis of 2014-2015. Basically, the water supply for Flint, Michigan was switched from one source to another. When that switch occurred, the water authority forgot to continue adding a chemical that protected people from lead pipes. This resulted in contaminated water, full of lead. Tragically, this mistake (and the ongoing cover-up) caused permanent effects to around 9,000 young children.
But here’s the thing: Most kids exposed to lead don’t get it through their water. Children, especially those in low-income housing, are more likely to be exposed to lead from old paint.
Lead paint wasn’t banned in the United States until 1978, and it’s likely that consumers used old lead paint for a few years after that. Therefore, homes built up through the early ’80s are likely to have lead paint in them (and the older the home, the higher the probability of lead paint).
As lead paint ages, it cracks and flakes, easily getting into household dust and even outside soil (if your house exterior has lead paint).
How to Avoid Lead
Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to avoid lead.
Check Your House’s Age
If you live in an older home (built before the early 1980s), you should get a few lead test kits to check your home for lead (door frames and window jambs are the most likely culprits).
Renovate with Caution
If you find lead paint in your home, DO NOT sand the paint off. I understand the urge to just get rid of the problem, but you will actually be making it much worse. If you sand the area, it disperses lead dust throughout the air and surrounding area, putting your family in danger.
Instead, you have two options: you can call a contractor certified in lead abatement (expensive), or paint over the old leaded paint to encapsulate it. This is actually a good solution, as long as no one chews on or damages the coat of paint. Remove any large chips of old paint flaking off, and if you have to sand any small spots (manually only, don’t use an electric sander) make sure you wet the area first to keep dust from kicking up, and then throw the sandpaper away. Then, just paint over the area like normal.
Keep a Dust-Free House
Dust and vacuum frequently to keep lead dust at bay. Pay particular attention to spaces where kids play on the floor since hand-to-mouth behaviors can expose kids to dust.
Check Your Soil and Water
If you live in an older home, you likely want to check the soil for lead. Fortunately, there are soil testing kits that check for not just lead, but other heavy metals as well. Note that the highest lead concentrations typically reside in the soil right beside your house, but it’s good to check other areas too.
If there is lead in your soil, be especially careful to take off shoes at the door when you come into your house to avoid tracking in dirt. And if you’re gardening, use a raised garden bed with new soil so that your produce isn’t contaminated.
Cadmium is another extremely toxic heavy metal. While recent changes in regulations have decreased cadmium exposure risk for children, it is still worth discussion.
Health Effects of Cadmium
Unlike lead, which is stored in the bones, cadmium is stored in soft tissues. Cadmium causes the most damage to the kidneys and liver (although it also affects the endocrine and reproductive systems). But for children, the brain is at most risk from cadmium exposure. A study from 2012 found that children with higher cadmium levels are three times more likely to have learning disabilities.
Where is Cadmium Found?
Everyone has baseline exposure to cadmium from foods such as grains, leafy vegetables, and potatoes. But that typical exposure doesn’t mean you should stop eating veggies! It’s still more important to eat greens. And this exposure doesn’t change whether you choose organic produce or conventional.
However, the more pressing concern for kids actually comes from toys and costume jewelry. Sometimes toys have been painted or pigmented with cadmium salts. Most often, these paints are yellow, orange, or red. Fortunately, the number of recalls in North America for toys with cadmium has decreased significantly over the past decade, but there is still more work to be done.
It is important to note that costume jewelry is not classified as toys in the United States. With that said, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission has no legal requirement to keep cadmium out of jewelry.
How to Avoid Cadmium
As mentioned before, food can have trace amounts of cadmium, so it’s difficult to avoid that type of exposure. However, having iron in your food actually decreases cadmium absorption, so make sure you and your child have plenty of iron-rich foods to help offset exposure.
You can also choose toys manufactured in the United States, England, or the EU to lower the risk of toys containing cadmium. In addition, consider either avoiding children’s costume jewelry or only giving it to your child only under supervision. And make sure the jewelry doesn’t go in the child’s mouth!
While you may be more aware of arsenic as a poison in old-timey mysteries, this heavy metal is still a problem for people today. And like other heavy metals, arsenic carries special risks for young children.
Health Effects of Arsenic
Children’s exposure to arsenic can lead to effects in the brain and nervous system, causing decreased intelligence and memory. In addition, arsenic exposure has also been linked to cardiovascular disease and diabetes. But the real concern with arsenic is that current safety exposure guidelines are well above what’s actually safe.
Unlike lead, which causes fairly immediate neurodevelopmental effects, it might not be apparent that someone has cognitive effects from arsenic exposure until young adulthood, which is why it’s important to always take preventative exposure measures.
Where is Arsenic Found?
You can find arsenic in soil and water. Because of this, arsenic can also end up in crops grown in contaminated areas.
And, as you’ve probably heard, rice is the worst crop for arsenic contamination. This is due to two reasons: first, rice grows on a paddy, which is a flooded area. All that extra water allows rice to absorb extra arsenic. Second, rice is grown in areas that, historically, were treated with arsenic. Farmers used arsenic-containing pesticides up through the ’80s (and some are still used today). Because arsenic doesn’t break down over time, it remains in the soil and water today. Note that this also means that organically produced rice can have just as much arsenic as conventionally-produced counterparts.
How to Avoid Arsenic
Fortunately, there are ways to avoid arsenic — and you don’t have to avoid eating rice. Even though there are nutrients in the bran, you should choose white rice instead of brown to avoid arsenic. Also, it’s wise to rinse your rice well before cooking. Typically, Basmati rice from California, India, or Pakistan has lower amounts of arsenic.
In addition, I suggest that you avoid rice cereal for your baby. While doctors may recommend rice cereal as a first food for very young infants, there isn’t any nutritional gain from it. In fact, the CDC recommends waiting until a child is six months before introducing any foods besides breast milk or formula. Skipping rice cereal entirely is a good way to avoid the elevated arsenic risk. Consider jumping straight into fruit and veggie purees.
While you may be familiar with mercury in its elemental form from old thermometers, there are plenty of other sources of mercury exposure to be aware of.
Health Effects of Mercury
Have you ever heard the phrase “mad as a hatter?” Milliners, or those who made hats, were exposed to mercury in the process of making felt from rabbit skins. These people did indeed become more erratic, developing emotional problems and speech issues.
Like other heavy metals, mercury affects the nervous system, and once again, exposure during childhood (or even pregnancy) causes greater effects at smaller doses.
Where is Mercury Found?
Mercury comes from many industrial processes such as smelting. If you live in an industrial area, you may inhale mercury just from being out and about. But that’s not the only route of exposure. When a smokestack releases mercury, it spreads throughout the air, eventually making its way to the ocean. From there, it can enter the food chain.
Mercury bioaccumulates, meaning that it stays in the body for a very long time. In addition to this, it biomagnifies. One larger fish eats smaller fish, and the large fish then ends up with a high dose of mercury. This is why doctors recommend pregnant women avoid eating larger fish such as swordfish, shark, king mackerel, and large tuna.
How to Avoid Mercury
If possible, avoid living near a coal-fired power plant, since emissions from these plants release mercury.
In addition, choose fish that are low in mercury, such as salmon, sardines, tilapia, flounder, and shellfish. Be especially careful about which fish you eat when you are pregnant or feeding your child.
Consider everything that goes into the body.
Heavy Metal Exoposure Prevention
I realize this is a lot of information on just four heavy metals! But it’s so important! In case you’re overwhelmed, here’s a basic rundown to limit heavy metal exposure.
- If you live in a home built before the early 1980s (in the US), test window sills and door frames for lead. Paint over the lead to encapsulate it. DON’T sand paint or stain on your own.
- Choose a raised garden bed if you grow your own veggies.
- Choose toys produced in the US and Europe to avoid cadmium paints and pigments. In addition, be careful with children’s costume jewelry, which has no regulations on cadmium content. Definitely don’t allow children to chew on costume jewelry.
- Get a water filter to remove heavy metals.
- Choose basmati rice and rinse it well before cooking.
- Avoid rice cereal for babies. Introduce other solid foods at 6+ months. Make your own homemade baby food.
- Choose safe fish like salmon, tilapia, flounder, or shellfish, especially when pregnant.
With these steps, you can limit heavy metal exposure to you and your children.
Do you have more questions about heavy metal exposure? Read on!
What are the signs of heavy metal poisoning?
While symptoms from heavy metal poisoning depend on the type of metal and concentration of exposure, general symptoms include vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and weakness.
Lead poisoning: constipation, sleep problems, irritability, headaches, anemia, or loss of developmental skills.
Cadmium poisoning: fevers, issues with breathing, and muscle pain.
Arsenic poisoning: red swollen skin, muscle cramps, vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea.
Mercury poisoning: lack of coordination, muscle weakness, vision changes, or trouble walking.
I recommend looking at NORD’s website for an in-depth look at heavy metal poisoning symptoms across a wide spectrum of heavy metals.
Can I test my child for heavy metal exposure?
Yes, in fact, most pediatricians will do lead assessments throughout your baby’s well-visits and will test children for lead at ages 1 and 2, especially if there is a known concern. If your child shows elevated lead levels, you can take action to reduce exposure. Other heavy metals are generally not part of any routine screening, but if your child develops symptoms or had known exposure, your doctor can test for heavy metals with a simple blood test.
Does baby food contain heavy metals?
As recent news indicates, yes, sadly baby food can contain heavy metals beyond amounts permissible (hundreds of parts per billion!) And unfortunately, this includes both conventional and organic baby foods. Additionally, companies do not put a warning label on any baby food that contains heavy metals. It’s super frustrating and scary for parents. The best thing you can do is make your own baby food! That way you can control the produce you use and wash it really well. You might also consider a baby-led weaning approach to solid foods.
Does organic baby food or produce contain heavy metals?
Yes, toxic heavy metals make their way into both conventional and organic produce and baby food. The best thing you can do is help your child eat a variety of healthy foods. Experts say that a diet with healthy amounts of minerals (especially iron, vitamin C, and calcium) reduces the presence heavy metal toxicity in the body.
Can I remove heavy metals from my body?
If your child has high levels of heavy metals, doctors can use a process known as chelation to treat heavy metal poisoning. Doctors can use medication that binds to heavy metals in the body and carry them out of the body. Note: that this is only for severe cases of heavy metal poisoning as it does have pretty serious health risks associated with it.
As mentioned previously, it’s important for your child to have a balanced diet to minimize exposure and reduce the effects of heavy metal exposure. For example, the EPA says that iron, calcium, and vitamin C all work together to reduce lead absorption.
What other items contain heavy metals I should be aware of?
Well, once you start doing your research, you’ll find that heavy metals are everywhere. Use your best judgment and stay away from obvious hazards. Other items that do contain heavy metals include batteries, fluorescent light bulbs (these are a hazard if broken), ceramic dishware, cosmetics, artist paints, fishing weights, and some foods. Keep in mind most of these items have only trace amounts of heavy metals, but always do your due diligence and ask the manufacturer about heavy metal content.
I hope these tips help you and your family limit exposure to heavy metals! Let me know if you have any questions.