Can diet help lower your lead levels?

Three weeks after we bought our 1908 house, our two preschoolers' lead levels became elevated to the mid-teens. Our doctor was not concerned; however, my mother is a nutritionist and we put the kids on a multivitamin with iron and vitamin C. The theory, according to my mother, is that lead attaches to iron and then is flushed out of the system; vitamin C helps the body digest iron. In the end, I was able to bring the kids lead levels down to 5 within 12 months. Can you tell me more about using nutrition to combat high lead levels?

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Sue Gilbert

Sue Gilbert works as a consulting nutritionist. For many years she worked with Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, integrating nutrition and... Read more

Over the years, the levels defining lead poisoning have been progressively lowered. Between 1986 and 1988, several studies demonstrated neurobehavioral impairment in lead exposed children with blood lead levels as low as 10 to 14 mcg/dL.

The fact that your children had blood lead levels in the teens is cause for concern. It is good that you have managed to bring the levels down. I have searched the literature, and cannot find scientific studies that confirm your mother's recommendations to treat the problem with iron and vitamin C therapy, although I have read the recommendations in various locations.

However, it is known that certain dietary deficiencies can magnify lead's toxicity. The quantity of lead absorbed increases significantly with iron or calcium deficiency. It may be that by correcting a marginal iron deficiency in your children, you may have helped to reduce the problem. It certainly will not hurt your children to supplement them with iron (at levels no more than 100 percent of recommended daily intakes as iron can also be toxic at too high a level) and vitamin C.

I do not believe, however, that supplementation is the best way to treat them. Low blood levels of lead may mean that the lead has been moved out of the blood, but does not mean it has been removed from all the other body tissues in which it can become stored. Lead, once in the body, takes a very long time to excrete, which is why it can accumulate to such dangerous levels.

The Center for Disease Control recommends that in asymptomatic children having blood lead levels of iron below 25 mcg/dL, (which is where your children fall) treatment is probably not indicated. Instead, removal from the source is the most important action. Therefore, along with the CDC, I recommend that you don't depend on iron and vitamin C therapy as a way of treating the problem but rather that you move your family from your house temporarily while you have all sources of lead removed. Prevention of further lead ingestion or inhalation is paramount.

I know that this sounds drastic, but lead, inhaled or ingested over time, can take up residence in various body tissues where it can be stored and mobilized later on. Lead toxicity in children can have serious consequences as I am sure you are aware. Reducing your children's exposure is the safest and surest way to prevent this potentially serious problem.

Optimizing their nutritional intake will certainly help to mitigate any potential harm, but cannot prevent it entirely.

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