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Heavy metals in food pose a threat to children's health

The issue of heavy metals in our food supply has gained significant attention, especially following a 2021 US Congressional Report which revealed alarming levels of the toxic substances in infant food products. The discovery of lead in children’s fruit puree pouches has only heightened concerns.

Two recent studies investigated the correlation between heavy metal consumption and severe health risks, including cancer. 

The research, which highlights an urgent need for more stringent food safety regulations, will be presented at the Society for Risk Analysis Annual Conference.

Contaminated crops

The studies were led by Felicia Wu, a food scientist at Michigan State University. They were focused on the health implications of lead, arsenic, and cadmium found in everyday foods. 

These heavy metals are absorbed by food crops from contaminated sources like soil, air, and water, and pose significant risks to human health.

Dietary risks

The first study, conducted by Wu along with Charitha Gamlath and Patricia Hsu, was a comprehensive evaluation of health risks from dietary exposure to heavy metals. 

The team analyzed various data sources to investigate the relationship between metal consumption and health effects, both cancerous and non-cancerous.


Lead is often found in old paint, water pipes, and contaminated soil, and also lurks in food items like root vegetables. 

The experts found that lead poses a moderate to high risk of causing several cancers, including lung, kidney, and brain cancer. Non-cancer risks such as neurological and respiratory effects also scored moderately to highly.


Arsenic is a natural element that contaminates water and food, particularly in areas with high soil arsenic levels. Foods like rice and leafy greens are common sources. 

The study showed that arsenic is associated with a moderate to high risk for various cancers, including skin and lung cancer, and non-cancer risks like cardiovascular disease and developmental effects.


Found in nuts, potatoes, and tobacco smoke, cadmium also emerges from fertilizers and industrial emissions. 

Cadmium was found to pose a moderate to high risk for cancers like breast and pancreatic cancer and non-cancer risks, including renal and reproductive effects.

Previously, Wu co-authored a study which revealed that infants and young children are exposed to cadmium through common foods. This research underscored the vulnerability of children, with their cadmium exposure often exceeding safe levels.

Arsenic exposure

In the second study, the team assessed the cancer risks associated with inorganic arsenic in U.S. food products. 

The preliminary results suggest that every year, more than 6,000 additional cases of bladder and lung cancers and over 7,000 cases of skin cancers can be attributed to the consumption of inorganic arsenic in the United States.

The researchers also found that certain food products can be associated with higher cancer risks than others. These include rice, wheat, and leafy green vegetables.  

Study implications 

The findings of these studies highlight the need for stricter food safety regulations and heightened public health policies. 

More importantly, the research emphasizes the need for consumer awareness about the potential dangers lurking in everyday foods.

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