For those new to this website:
Tamara Rubin is a multiple-Federal-award-winning independent advocate for childhood Lead-poisoning prevention and consumer goods safety, and a documentary filmmaker. She is also a mother of Lead-poisoned children (two of her sons were acutely Lead-poisoned in 2005). Since 2009, Tamara has been using XRF technology (a scientific method used by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission) to test consumer goods for toxicants (specifically heavy metals — including Lead, Cadmium, Mercury, Antimony, and Arsenic). All test results reported on this website are science-based, accurate, and replicable. Items are tested multiple times to confirm the test results for each component tested. Tamara’s work was featured in Consumer Reports Magazine in February of 2023 (March 2023 print edition).
Published: 3/26/23 — Sunday
I am not a doctor (I am more of an investigator).
First, I will emphasize that I am not a doctor! I am not a healthcare professional of any kind, and I don’t have a degree in any area of healthcare or medicine! That said, I often work with families who have children (and sometimes also parents) with mysterious sources of medically confirmed Lead exposure. When families call me for a Zoom consult or hire me to come to their home for a one-on-one home consultation, we review as much as we can about their life; their home, their daily habits, and routines. This is one cog in the process of methodically tracking down the potential sources of Lead exposure in their lives. In most cases, families have sought me out after trying and/or exhausting other avenues of exploration — with inspectors, agency representatives, health care providers, or others who tried and failed to find the specific sources of exposure for that family.
Because I have a body of experience (I’ve been doing this work for nearly 17 years), and because I have immersed myself in the science and ongoing research on the topic (as well as having personally conducted extensive independent testing and research into potential sources of toxicants-exposure from consumer goods), I have a near-perfect track record of discovering/pin-pointing the likely source of toxicant exposure for families in these situations.
Why I am writing this article at this time:
I’ve written up the story about this particular family’s situation (below) as I felt it was emblematic of a new and popular dietary trend. The popularity of this trend has become increasingly evident in my work as several families I have helped in recent years have followed this specific diet (in each case a diet which was recommended by a healthcare practitioner / doctor or nutritionist), which invariably resulted in persistent Lead exposure (in the BLL range of 2.0 to 5.0 micrograms of Lead per deciliter of blood) in infants and toddlers living in the home.
I hope that sharing this story might provide useful information for others in a similar situation, who may be exploring unknown sources of Lead exposure — and especially those considering whether or not a diet (or even breast-feeding) might be a contributing factor.
If you are new to this concern and if you feel that any of the content of the article below is relevant to your personal situation, and especially if your child has not yet had a Blood Lead Level (BLL) test before, or within the past six months regardless of their age, I would highly recommend your first step in response to reading this article be asking your doctor for a BLL test for your child. Ask for a test for yourself too, if possible — especially if you are breastfeeding. More on that at this link.
A “High-Lead Diet”
This year I have been helping a family in which both a mama (we’ll call her Jane for the purpose of this article) and her baby have tested positive for Lead — at Blood Lead Levels (BLLs) far above average population levels for people in their age bracket. The mom (who tested positive with a BLL of 1.7 micrograms of Lead per deciliter of blood) was concerned about breastmilk contamination. This is a rare, but possible consideration when attempting to determine the source of a child’s elevated BLL.
Jane had initially been concerned that she was poisoning her baby with Lead that may have been leaching from her bones (and thereby contaminating her breastmilk) — potentially as a result of her childhood exposure to Lead (combined with a dairy-free diet while breastfeeding). Jane did not have a documented childhood exposure to Lead, but was assuming childhood exposure based on her age.
We discussed this concern in detail and – given her age and size/ body mass (taking into account anticipated average population BLLs for her demographic) — I explained that I did not expect that cellular turnover releasing Lead stored in her bones from her childhood would be a likely primary source of her current (elevated) Blood Lead Level (of 1.7). The logic for this is as follows:
- The science that indicates that the cellular turnover in bones can lead to women being “re-poisoned” from early childhood exposure (especially potentially resulting in a BLL as high as Jane’s) demonstrates that this normally only happens in menopausal (or post-menopausal) women.
- There is scientific consensus that the Lead that is detectible (through modern/ commonly available blood Lead testing methods) as circulating in the blood (especially at Blood Lead Levels above population baseline levels that might be anticipated given the demographics of the subject) is normally the result of recent exposures.
- Lead circulating in the blood is normally absorbed by the bones and soft tissues fairly rapidly (Lead bio-mimics Calcium, so biological structures use it/ absorb it in the place of Calcium if it is present) — with a 30 to 45 day half-life anticipated for BLL’s once a person has been removed from the source of exposure.
- The population average for the BLL of women of childbearing age in the United States in this century is closer to a BLL of 0.4 micrograms of Lead per deciliter of blood.
- With this basis of understanding, Jane’s current Blood Lead Level (BLL) of 1.7 was likely from an ongoing persistent low-level exposure source encountered in her environment or daily routines.
Supportive anecdotal side note: Even I (with a known history of acute exposure from when my children were poisoned in August of 2005) “only” had a BLL of 1.1 during my pregnancy and birth of my youngest son in July of 2008 (likely from the period of high cellular turnover associated with the pregnancy and birth of my child). Jane did not have a known history of a similar acute exposure. Link to my birth story, here.
Given the above points of consideration we shifted our attention to other potential sources of exposure.
After a Zoom consult with both parents — including several follow-up communications — we essentially eliminated the possibility of the exposure source coming from their home. The family lives in a mostly updated/newer-construction* (1962) house, with no other obvious “usual suspects” like “up-cycled” old architectural decorations, or vintage “shabby-chic” furniture, vintage kitchenware, Lead-painted baby bottles, etc. Given this context, we came to the tentative conclusion that the most likely remaining exposure source (especially granted the age of the baby: 9 months old) might be something in Mom’s current diet — especially since the only two people in the family (which includes two other small children and one other parent) that tested positive for Lead were Jane and her breastfeeding infant.
When we carefully reviewed Jane’s diet (the foods she was prioritizing and focusing on based on her nutritionist’s recommendation), we determined that her nutritionist had — without realizing it — basically put her on a “High Lead” diet, as nearly ALL of the foods the nutritionist had suggested that Jane prioritize and eat daily were foods which are known to be high in Lead. Jane shared with me that her nutritionist had specifically put her on this diet as a short-term “remedy” to “calm the gut” because the nutritionist had concluded that her baby seemed to be having allergic reactions/ intolerance seemingly “to all foods.” This is particularly of interest in light of the fact that Lead exposure (from many of the recommended foods — or other sources) has a primary symptomatic impact (in most cases) of actually causing G.I. distress.
*(They did have one set of “Lead-lights” [windows alongside their main entry door] in the home — however, given the level of interaction with that feature of the home, combined with other factors such as the child’s age, this building feature did not seem a likely source of exposure for this particular family. Though they did eliminate this as a potential hazard fairly immediately after our conversation.)
Jane’s nutritionist had her eat a diet adhering to the following guidelines, with an emphasis on the suggested foods below — which led to her consuming a significant amount of high-Lead foods on a daily basis:
- All Organic foods
With a focus on consuming the following (high-Lead) foods:
- Root Vegetables — most of which are notoriously highly Lead-contaminated
- 70(+)% Dark Chocolate — the highest-Lead form of chocolate (chocolate itself being already arguably the most consistently Lead-contaminated item at the grocery store!) — “twice a day!” (Link with more info on Lead in chocolate.)
- Cassava and Cassava-based Products (including cassava-based snacks, chips, crackers, cereals, granola, etc.) — Cassava consistently tests positive for incredibly high levels of Lead (stand by for a follow-up article exclusively on this subject soon!). This includes Cassava-based and arrowroot/tapioca flour-containing products (with Cassava often referred to as “arrowroot” or “tapioca” in ingredient lists for packaged products — including many snacks).
- Leafy Greens – ironically, some greens tend to be high in Lead depending on the specific type (spinach, for example) and area of origin.
- Sunflower Butter — documented to be high in Lead, which is not surprising given sunflowers are actually used for phytoremediation — naturally absorbing and removing Lead from contaminated soil! More on that here.
- Bone Broth (three times a day) — often high in Lead (read more info, here).
- Supplements — insufficiently regulated (specifically as far as Lead-content is concerned). Supplement manufacturers often only test down to 5 ppm (5,000 ppb) Lead as a low threshold of detection — when food limits for Lead range in the 1-to-100 ppb range. (Click here for more info.)
- Limited Fruits — note: Some dried fruits can be high in Lead!
The plan moving forward for Jane — a science-based inquiry
Based on this preliminary hypothesis — that the exposure for both mama and infant was likely from Jane’s diet — we then came up with an experimental action plan in which she would stop eating the high-Lead foods (again, foods which had been recommended by her nutritionist) for three weeks (exactly 21 days, as it turned out). Then, she would have herself and her baby re-tested at the end of the three weeks, a day before she was scheduled to leave for a vacation.
We then also decided she would re-test again (both the baby and herself) upon returning from vacation. The logic behind this was that the observed “half-life” of Lead in the blood is 30 to 45 days (more on that here). If she re-tested three weeks/21 days after stopping this high-Lead diet, in theory, the absence of continued exposure (assuming her diet was in fact her exposure source) would allow her and her child’s BLL to begin dropping significantly. This result could be an indicator suggestive of the diet change working — and of the possible validity of the hypothesis that her diet might in fact be the likely primary source of exposure for her child.
We did not undertake this significant shift in diet lightly, and I advised her that she may want to confirm things with her doctor (and/or her nutritionist) — to make sure she remains healthy (not rapidly losing weight for instance, nor experiencing any other obvious observable adverse impacts) once she shifted to the new/temporary diet. If the experiment appeared to help, she would consider talking to her healthcare provider about making (some or all of) these dietary changes permanent.
Most important to understand: Symptoms
There is no safe level of Lead exposure for children. Lead-poisoning causes permanent brain damage and learning disabilities, among a long list of other very serious health impacts — especially in the case of the very-youngest infants. From a health perspective, removing Lead from the child’s diet is more important than nearly any other dietary consideration (especially if that child is currently meeting milestones; not underweight; etc.) You can read more about symptoms in adults on this link. This link discusses symptoms in children.
- It is also important to note that the most common symptom of Lead-exposure (at the time of exposure) is no symptom at all.
- Obvious symptoms of Lead exposure — especially including profound, life-long neurological and developmental impacts in children — normally do not generally fully develop/ present until years after exposure.
- This is because the brain continues to develop through age 25 and one cannot evaluate the extent of neurological impacts until cognitive function and behavioral patterns are better established (when the child is older — and at least school age).
- That said, common symptoms that sometimes occur concurrent with ongoing/ persistent/ chronic or acute Lead-exposure (in both adults and children) include G.I. distress (digestive issues, constipation, diarrhea, vomiting, etc.); loss of appetite; headaches; anxiety; sleep disorders (sleeplessness); irritability and general malaise.
Continue below to read the suggestions I made for Jane (the experiment to change her specific diet temporarily to see if it would reduce Lead levels for herself and her child) and the outcome of that experiment.
The Dietary “Experiment” for Jane
NOTE: Below are diet recommendations I made for this specific family — based on our conversation about their existing diet. (Note: These suggestions may or may not be applicable or relevant for others in the same [or similar] situation.)
#1) Stop (strictly) Eating
- Root vegetables (especially avoid: potatoes, sweet potatoes / yams, beets, turnips, etc. – see exceptions, below)
- Anything listing Cassava (or Tapioca or Arrowroot – which are often other words on ingredient labels for Cassava) as an ingredient
- Sunflower seed butter (entirely)
- Chocolate (entirely)
- Bone Broth (entirely)
- All Supplements (just for the period of the experiment — provided none of them are medically-essential!)
- Spinach (or other small, dense leafy greens)
- Limit any and all ground/processed flour products if possible for this period (made of any base ingredients)
- Protein Powders/ Pea Powders, etc. (any processed, powdered product — whether sold as a food, food ingredient, or supplement)
#2) Start Eating (or eat more of — with a continued focus on Organic)
- Garlic — to tolerance: All forms — add to fresh-pressed vegetable juices, add to cooked meals, add to soups, etc. (Through extensive international research, Garlic has been scientifically proven to help remove Lead from soft tissue and blood. You can read more about that here.)
- Fresh Vegetables — snap peas; fresh carrots (that are washed and peeled — see comment below in comments on this article for additional thoughts about carrots); lettuces, tomatoes, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, Brussels spouts, avocados, etc. Eat veggies raw or lightly-steamed whenever possible.
- Whole (unprocessed, ideally purchased “in-the-shell” — which is an indicator that they are less likely to be Lead contaminated from processing, including “shelling”) Organic Nuts (e.g. walnuts, pecans, or cashews, almonds, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, and pistachios).
- As Jane is a nursing mother (and not vegetarian/ vegan), I suggested that she consider adding dairy back in to her diet if she can tolerate it (just for the period of this experiment). With a focus on items with live cultures to help with gut health issues she was having — I recommended BioK (which is available in both dairy and non-dairy formulations).
- Drink lots of water, to help flush her system during this period (especially when eating garlic).
- Drink lots of fresh Organic green (vegetable) juices (not from concentrate) during this period, to help flush her system (celery, cucumber, apple — mixed together, that sort of thing).
- Drink fresh fruit juices (watered-down, to reduce the sugar content; not packaged/ not from concentrate/ locally-made-on-demand or pressed/juiced at home, rather than “store-bought,” if possible).
- For each cup of green juice or fruit juice consumed — drink 2 cups or more of water (to help flush the system, given we are trying to get Lead out of circulation in her body and she is still breast feeding).
- Fresh, whole Organic fruit (to tolerance) — cantaloupe, honeydew, peas, pineapples, apples, and oranges; fresh organic wild blueberries and other berries, and no bananas (bananas are very constipating and should only be eaten very rarely).
#3) Continue Eating (ok to continue eating)…
- Meat (Jane’s diet already included eating meat, and she did not need to change this for the purposes of our experiment).
- With “limited” alcohol consumption (not something I would encourage in general, but as Jane told me she “has a glass of wine every now and then”):
- No vintage wines (only newer California wines)
- No European wines
- Don’t drink out of crystal (and don’t eat off of vintage china!) — small Ball jars make great wine glasses (and you can get clear glass undecorated plates at The Dollar Store for $1.25 each)!
#4) Other things I suggested that Jane focus on during this time
- No epsom salts baths — preferably shower during the period of our experiment (instead of taking baths). See comment below (in “comments section”) for more detail on this — this is also the subject of an upcoming article.
- Get your home evaluated for potential exposure sources in the meantime, as well (more on that here — link.)
- Focus on chewing! Chewing food thoroughly is super-important to aid in digestion and absorption of nutrients. Don’t give a baby foods they cannot chew.
- Limit or remove rice from your diet (it is generally very high in Arsenic — including Organically-grown rice).
- If possible, stop eating any and all seafood during this period of this little experiment.
The results (so far — about a month after our initial zoom consult)
- February 16, 2023: Jane initially reported that her Blood Lead Level (BLL) before starting this “experiment” was 1.7 micrograms per deciliter.
- February 24, 2023: We had our Zoom consult & new diet was started.
- March 17, 2023: Jane got a BLL re-test after 21 days on new diet.
- March 18, 2023: Jane reported to me that the test result done three weeks after shifting her diet came in. Her BLL was down to 1.1.
- February 16, 2023: Jane initially reported that her 9 month old baby’s BLL was at 3.0 micrograms per deciliter.
- February 24, 2023: New diet started
- March 5, 2023: 9 days after new diet started, mom sent me text (image above).
- March 21, 2023: Nearly exactly one month after shifting their diet, Jane reported to me that her baby’s BLL was down by 50% (to a BLL of 1.5.).
While of course this whole scenario is anecdotal (and not a true scientific experiment with appropriate controls in place), the drops in both the mother’s and baby’s Blood Lead Level numbers in this scenario are clear indicators that our hypothesis that the exposure (for both Jane and her child) was coming from her diet was a reasonable hypothesis.
This is NOT the first time I have worked with a family with this sort of “mysterious” exposure — where their diet ended up being the most likely significant source of exposure. In fact, in recent years I have worked with quite a few families whose children were likely poisoned from an increase in Cassava-based product consumption (which is why I am currently working on a separate article just on the subject of the potential for Lead-poisoning from a Cassava-rich diet!).
As I understand it — there is actually a new trend for natural health practitioners to “prescribe” or at least “highly-recommend” a Cassava-rich (or generally root-vegetable based) diet, and we really ought to do everything we can to put a stop to this disturbing trend. (Separately, I have also worked with several families where the likely source of Lead-exposure for their child was a yam-/ sweet potato-based diet.)
While I would not recommend a dramatic change in diet for everyone in a situation like this, I do recommend that anyone with this type of diet (Cassava-based? Root vegetable-based?) consider immediately asking their doctor for a Blood Lead Test (more on that here — link) and then, depending on the results of that testing, consider talking to their doctor (or nutritionist) about adjusting their diet accordingly (and also consider getting a new healthcare provider if your healthcare provider is the one who recommended that you be on this high-Lead diet)! I also fundamentally believe that any diet that focuses on the consumption of a few specific foods is not likely a healthy diet. As human beings, with our diets we need to ALWAYS focus on variety — especially including as wide a variety as possible of fresh, whole (above-ground) vegetables and fruits (organic, and consumed raw or lightly-steamed, whenever possible too, of course).
~ End ~