How to Fight Lead Exposure with Nutrition

By Bethany Thayer, MS, RDN, FAND
running faucet - How to Fight Lead Exposure with Nutrition

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Although exposure to lead in the United States may have decreased, it is still a concern and caution is advised, especially for children who have access to toys with lead-based paint or individuals who live in older homes. In some instances, lead can leach from the main water pipes and into the household water supply. If exposed to lead, eating a healthy diet may help reduce its absorption by the body.

What Are the Dangers of Lead?

When lead is consumed, research shows it can cause learning and behavior problems. As it accumulates, it can cause lasting problems with growth and development. Infants and children are at a higher risk because their bodies are still developing, in addition to being more likely to put non-food items that might contain lead in their mouth. Women who are pregnant are also at increased risk, since lead exposure can affect an unborn baby.

How to Avoid Lead

Lead is most likely to be consumed as lead-based paint in and outside the home — peels, chips or cracks — and ends up being consumed because it is on toys or other surfaces that kids put in their mouth. When lead is present in the water system, it can become more difficult to avoid (visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for more on lead in the water supply).

To minimize exposure to lead:

  • Always wash your hands and ensure children wash their hands with uncontaminated water before eating.
  • Do not use imported pottery or leaded crystal to store or serve food.
  • Use an NSF-certified filter on your faucet for drinking water, food preparation and cooking, and be sure to change the filter cartridge by the date printed on the package. If a filter or bottled water are unavailable, visit the CDC's source on lead to reduce or eliminate lead in tap water by using only cold tap water that has been thoroughly flushed from the pipes. Boiling water will not reduce the presence of lead.
  • Regularly clean toys, pacifiers, floors, windowsills and other surfaces using liquid cleaners that control dust.
  • Wipe or remove shoes before entering your home.
  • Get your home tested for lead if it was built before 1978.

Eat a Healthy Diet to Help Decrease Lead Absorption

Follow the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans to include a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, protein foods and dairy products. When there is nutritious food in the body, it may be more difficult for lead to be absorbed. Make sure you select foods rich in important nutrients such as calcium, iron and vitamin C throughout the day.

Calcium keeps your bones strong and some research suggests it may also help reduce lead absorption. Sources of calcium include::

  • Milk and milk products, such as yogurt and cheese
  • Calcium-fortified foods and beverages, such as soy milk, tofu and some breakfast cereals
  • Green leafy vegetables, including kale and turnip, mustard and collard greens
  • Canned salmon and sardines

Iron deficiency has been associated with increased levels of lead in the blood. Iron may help minimize lead absorption. Foods that are a good source of iron include:

  • Lean red meats
  • Iron-fortified cereals, bread and pasta
  • Beans and lentils
  • Cooked spinach and potatoes

Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron better, but also may help with getting rid of lead. Foods rich in vitamin C include:

  • Citrus fruits, such as oranges and grapefruit
  • Other fruits such as kiwi, strawberries and melon
  • Broccoli
  • Peppers

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