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Diet to Help Reduce the Effects of Lead Poisoning

Due to the water contamination crisis in the city of Flint, Michigan parents must take their children to the pediatrician’s office to test for lead poisoning. The increased national awareness concerning contaminated water and the potential poisoning of children, with probable serious long-term health effects, has outraged citizens. As people are donating clean water to Flint, I ask is there anything else that can be done to help those contaminated with lead? As a Certified Lead Inspector, Risk Assessor, Health Educator and Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate graduate, I recommend a whole food, plant-based diet for the children of Flint, as well as any others dealing with lead poisoning.

Since childhood lead poisoning is rarely in the news, most people are unaware of exactly what it is and what the basics of lead poisoning are, so let’s break it down.

Lead (Pb) poisoning is a public health concern for children under the age of 6 and is preventable. Lead is a naturally occurring neurotoxin that once ingested, can cause cognitive and behavioral problems and in severe cases, even brain damage and/or death. No amount of lead in a child’s body is safe and according to the CDC, children who have a BLL (blood lead level) of 5ug/dl (micrograms per deciliter) or greater, are in need of case management[1]. Lead can come from many different sources, but it is most commonly found in paint from houses built pre-1978 and in dust from lead painted surfaces[2]. Lead can also be found in soil, various imported food cans and from water pipes. Lead contamination from water occurs when old lead-based water pipes, or solder fixtures and fittings start to decay. When testing water for lead, according to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) the threshold is 15 ppb (parts per billion) and anything above this level requires action[3]. If interested in seeing the results the complete dataset can be found in the Flint Water Study Updates[4].

The EPA and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) have tools and resources for educating the public which emphasize healthy eating and the five basic food groups. The EPA encourages children with elevated lead levels to keep a full stomach to prevent lead from easily absorbing into the body.[5] These recommendations indicate that nutrition does play an important role during lead poisoning interventions. Please notice that in the EPA resource “Fight Lead Poisoning with a Healthy Diet” each recipe listed includes animal products.[5]

The CDC emphasizes that parents should feed their children foods rich in calcium, zinc and iron to help keep lead out of the body and aid in lowering lead levels. As you can see the micronutrients recommended in “Eating Right Helps Fight Lead Poisoning” are from animal sources.[6] The weight of the scientific evidence currently suggests other more healthful ways to obtain nutrients while providing compelling evidence regarding the harmful effects of animal protein[7] compared to plant protein[8].

According to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition[9], a vegetarian diet of predominately plant foods correlated with exposure to environmental pollutants including lead, showed that changing from an omnivorous diet lowered the concentration of lead level exposures in the body. In another study published by the Scientific World Journal[10], the methods of effective chelating therapies were tested and demonstrated that various plant producing compounds have been shown to reduce the absorption and reabsorption of toxic metals including lead. Some of the plant-based foods included dietary fibers from grains, fruits, garlic, broccoli, and cilantro. Other studies have shown similar effects related to increased dietary plant-based micronutrients leading to decreased bodily toxins.

Examples of Plant-Based Nutrients to Combat Lead Poisoning

Beans, dark green vegetables, dried fruits, nuts, seeds, and whole grains

Green leafy vegetables, legumes, and calcium-fortified orange or apple juice

Vitamin C[13]
Broccoli, dark leafy greens, grapefruit, and sweet red pepper

Tofu, tempeh, legumes, nuts, seeds, oatmeal

The industry-funded nutrition information being shared with affected families is of concern. Since I understand the harmful effects of animal protein[7] compared to plant protein[8], this makes it challenging for me, a Certified Lead Inspector, to promote some of the educational materials provided by the government because they heavily promote animal consumption.

Limiting and abating potential sources of lead poisoning is the greatest method of prevention. In my professional opinion the promotion and adoption of a whole food, plant-based diet as a preventative public health measure is also critical.

The unfortunate public health disaster that the citizens of Flint are trying to overcome has been received with a public outpouring of water donations. As I asked before, is there anything else that can be done? Wouldn’t it be great to see an area that is suffering from food deserts[15] achieve access to fresh plant-based foods and proper nutrition education as a measure of secondary care? In my specialized experience, I would say without a doubt!


  1. What Do Parents Need to Know to Protect Their Children?Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 19 June 2014. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.
  2. Five Things You can do to help Lower Your Child’s Lead Level” Center for Disease Control and Prevention, June 2010. Web 17 Feb. 2016.
  3. About Lead in Drinking Water.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 01 Dec. 2015. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.
  4. Roy, Siddhartha. “[Complete Dataset] Lead Results from Tap Water Sampling in Flint, MI.” Flint Water Study Updates. Flint Water Study, 01 Dec. 2015. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.
  5. Fighting Lead Poisoning with a Healthy Diet.Environmental Protection Agency. 7 Dec. 2015. Wed. 17 Feb. 2016.
  6. Eating Right Helps Fight Lead PoisoningConnecticut Department of Public Health. Connecticut Lead and Healthy Homes Program. Web. 01 Feb. 2016.
  7. Campbell PhD, T. Colin. “Animal vs. Plant Protein – Nutrition Studies.” Center for Nutrition Studies. T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, 29 Oct. 2013. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.
  8. Frequently Asked Questions About Nutrition.” The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. PCRM, 13 Oct. 2010. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.
  9. Dorea, Jose G. “The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.” Vegetarian Diets and Exposure to Organochlorine Pollutants, Lead, and Mercury. American Society for Clinical Nutrition, July 2004. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.
  10. Sears, Margaret E. “Chelation: Harnessing and Enhancing Heavy Metal Detoxification—A Review.” The Scientific World Journal. Hindawi Publishing Corporation, 18 Apr. 2013. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.
  11. Iron: The Double-Edged Sword.” The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. PCRM.Org, 17 July 2012. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.
  12. Plant Based Diet Calcium.” The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. PCRM.Org, 13 Sept. 2010. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.
  13. How Vitamin C Helps Protect Against Cancer.” The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. PCRM.Org, 19 July 2012. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.
  14. Jack, Norris, RD. “Zinc.” Vegan Health. N.p., Feb. 2014. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.
  15. Tackling Food Deserts in Michigan | The Conservation Fund.” The Conservation Fund. The Conservation Fund, n.d. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.

Image Credit: Keoni Cabral

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