The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is taking action to reduce the amount of lead in apple juice and other juices. The FDA has issued draft guidance on steps that need to be made to make juice safer for people to drink.
Under the current regulations, juice can contain up to 50 parts per billion (ppb) of lead. If the draft action is finalized, it will lower the limit to 10 ppb in apple juice and 20 ppb for other juices.
The change would cause a 46% reduction in exposure to lead from apple juice in kids and a 19% reduction in exposure to lead from other juices, the FDA says. The FDA says it created the lowered draft action level for apple juice because it’s the juice children drink the most.
If you or your family members drink juice, it’s understandable to have questions about your potential lead exposure and what this can mean for your health. Here’s what you need to know.
How does lead end up in juice?
People are typically exposed to lead by breathing in lead fumes or lead dust, accidentally ingesting lead dust, or coming into contact with lead dust, which can be absorbed through your skin, the CDC says.
There are a few different ways lead can end up in juice. One is that lead is in the environment as a naturally-occurring element and it’s not possible to remove it entirely from the food supply, the FDA says.
Lead was also previously used as a pesticide, explains Scott Keatley, R.D., of Keatley Medical Nutrition Therapy. “Despite it being decades since it was used, lead does not simply disappear and standard fertilizers allow the lead to be taken into the tree more easily,” he says. “A single cup of juice contains about three apples. The more juice is consumed, the more likely it is to bring some lead into your body.”
“Heavy metals also contaminate our air, water, and soil from pollution, mining, and even natural processes like volcanic activity,” Weinandy says. And, she explains, that exposure can be absorbed by plants and end up in your juice.
Why is lead exposure bad?
Lead is a naturally-occurring element that’s found in the earth’s crust. When you’re exposed to lead, it’s absorbed and stored in your bones, blood, and tissues, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
It doesn’t stay there forever, but it’s stored in your body as a source of continual internal exposure. As you get older, your bones demineralize and those internal exposures may increase as larger amounts of lead are released from your bone tissue.
If you’re exposed to high levels of lead over a short period of time, you can experience lead poisoning. According to the CDC, symptoms of that include:
- Abdominal pain
- Loss of appetite
- Memory loss
- Pain or tingling in the hands and/or feet
- Feeling weak
Exposure to high levels of lead can cause anemia, weakness, and kidney and brain damage. You can also die if you’re exposed to very high levels of lead, the CDC says.
People who are exposed to lead over time may have these symptoms, per the CDC:
- Abdominal pain
- Feeling distracted
“The concern for lead in juice is mainly for children, given their smaller bodies and developing brains,” says Liz Weinandy, R.D., a registered dietician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “For adults, exposure to heavy metals like lead can increase the risk for many types of cancer, type 2 diabetes, reproductive difficulty, and cognitive problems. Lead in particular is associated with heart disease, high blood pressure, and fertility issues. It isn’t just lead that is concerning, but many different heavy metals, and many of them are a concern to both children and adults.”
For lead poisoning, “you need much higher levels of lead than those found in juice,” says Daniel Ganjian, M.D., a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. But, he says, “even very small amounts of lead can cause symptoms. Because of that, we want as low levels of lead as much as possible—close to zero is the goal.”
How concerned about this should you be?
In general, experts agree that this is more of a potential issue for children—and people who consume large amounts of juice.
“Most adults should not be overly concerned about the level of lead in the juice they consume, especially if they are consuming a standard serving of juice—four ounces,” Keatley says. “But if apple juice is your primary liquid, it may cause high blood pressure, headache, abdominal pain, and mood disorders. If you are trying to become pregnant, or are pregnant or breastfeeding, then it should be a concern.”
Still, “we know that even low-level chronic exposure can be hazardous over time, as lead can accumulate in the body,” says Kristian Morey, R.D., L.D.N., a clinical dietitian at Mercy Medical Center. “No amount is truly considered safe and minimizing all sources of lead exposure is important.”
Morey also points out that you don’t have to have juice. “One can always reduce the risk from juice further by avoiding it and eating whole fruit instead,” she says. “This is helpful as well when it comes to increasing fiber intake, as juice doesn’t usually contain much, and most Americans fall short of fiber intake recommendations.”
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