Experts weigh in on how nutrition keeps kids unleaded

By: Cari DeLamielleure-Scott | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published February 25, 2016

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METRO DETROIT — Lead, a naturally occurring element, can be found in the environment and throughout the home.

Historians have even debated the probability of lead poisoning causing the fall of the Roman Empire.  

And while there is no real medical treatment for lead poisoning — chelation therapy may be used in extreme cases where lead levels are over 30 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood — Dr. Charles Barone, chair of pediatrics for Henry Ford Health System, said the best treatment is prevention. 

“A lot of times, the treatment is we either have to have lead abatement in the home, or the family needs to move. Nutrition is the best route,” Barone said. 

No amount of lead is safe for children. Children can absorb 40-70 percent of a gastrointestinal dose of lead and retain one-third of that in their bodies, according to the World Health Organization. Adults, however, absorb only 10 percent and retain less than 1 percent. In 1976, 88 percent of children tested positive for lead with 10 or more micrograms per deciliter. In 1994, only 4.4 percent of children had levels of 10 micrograms per deciliter or more, and in 2009-10, just 0.8 percent, Barone said. 

Lead-based paint being banned for home use in 1978 and the phasing-out of lead in gasoline in the mid-1980s contributed to the decrease in exposure, Barone said. 

Some data suggests that lead levels as low as 5-10 micrograms per deciliter can cause developmental delays and behavioral delays in children. Unfortunately, most of the levels seen that cause those issues don’t typically cause physical symptoms, Barone said. Even kids who have a level of 60 micrograms per deciliter may not show outward symptoms, he added.

Despite the lack of treatment available, Barone said the risk of lead poisoning is another good argument for good nutrition, as nutrition affects how lead is absorbed. 

Beaumont Health System wellness dietitian-nutritionist Shannon Szeles said that the body absorbs more lead when a child has an empty stomach. 

Lead molecules compete with other molecules for absorption, she said, and because of that, children should have several balanced meals and snacks throughout the day. Kids should have snacks in between meals and before bed, she said. 

“You always want to have something in the belly so (lead is) competiting with other molecules that are more often going to be absorbed,” Szeles said. Snacks and meals should contain calcium, iron and vitamin C, which help battle lead absorption.

“If calcium is stronger in the bones, lead has no place to go in the bones to be absorbed,” Szeles said. When bones regenerate, calcium and lead are released. Lead then goes into the the blood and organs, causing damage. More calcium means less room for lead, Szeles said.

Iron competes with lead for absorption in the gut. If a person has enough iron in their body, less lead will be absorbed. When a child has an increase in heavy metals like lead and a decrease in elements like iron, zinc and copper, anemia can occur. 

“That’s one of the major things physicians look out for — making sure you have enough iron to prevent the anemia is really key,” she said. 

Vitamin C can help prevent the damaging effect that lead has on organs because it interferes with lead absorption in the cells, Szeles said, adding that vitamin C and iron work hand in hand; vitamin C enhances the iron absorption.

Szeles said that calcium can be found in dairy products — milk, cheese, yogurt — or in any calcium-fortified milk alternative or orange juice. It can also be found in green, leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale, as well as broccoli. Canned salmon is also a good source of calcium, she said. 

“A lot of these foods are also good sources of phosphorus, magnesium and vitamin C, and all of those nutrients help calcium work better during lead exposure,” Szeles said. 

One of the best sources of iron is lean red meat — ground beef 90 percent lean or greater, anything with “round” or “loin” in the name, and anything that has minimal fat marbling. Tuna; salmon; chicken; green, leafy vegetables; and beans and legumes are all good sources too. Szeles said kids can eat iron-fortified foods like cereal, bread and pasta. 

People receive vitamin C mostly through fruits and vegetables, including citrus fruits, tomatoes, tomato juice and peppers. Fruit  and vegetable juice is also a good source for vitamin C, Szeles said. 

“A well-rounded diet is not only going to help in the cases of lead exposure, they’re going to be great for growth development anyway,” Szeles said, adding that the best option is to pair foods that are high in iron, calcium and vitamin C. 

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials said in an email that parents and caregivers need to prevent lead exposure before children are harmed. 

“If you think your child has been exposed to lead, talk to your pediatrician, general physician or local health agency about what you can do. Your doctor can do a simple blood test to check you or your child for lead exposure,” the EPA said in an email. 

To determine if a child could have been exposed to lead, at a wellness visit pediatricians will ask the age of the home and conduct a lead-screening questionnaire, Barone said. Pediatricians also look at ZIP codes that are considered high-risk areas for lead poisoning. ZIP codes in Oakland and Macomb counties that are high risk include Birmingham (48009), Hazel Park (48030), Royal Oak (48067), Huntington Woods (48070), Berkley (48072), Ferndale (48220), Keego Harbor (48320), Eastpointe (48021), Mount Clemens (48043) and Warren (48089 and 48091), according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services website. 

For more information about lead blood tests, contact your child’s health care provider.

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