Balsamic and other red wine vinegars often contain lead, a potent neurotoxin, and could pose a risk to children who consume it regularly, according to a new analysis by Environmental Health News.
Eating just one tablespoon a day of some vinegars can raise a young child’s lead level by more than 30 percent, modeling requested by the news service shows.
Lead can damage people’s neurological systems, particularly children’s developing brains. Even low levels can reduce a child’s IQ or trigger learning and behavioral disorders, scientific studies show. In adults, it has been linked to cardiovascular, kidney and immune system effects.
The heavy metal is so toxic and persistent in the body that there is no known threshold below which adverse effects do not occur, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In California, warning signs are posted on stores’ vinegar shelves as part of a legal settlement under a state law, Proposition 65, that requires consumers to be notified when products contain chemicals tied to cancer, birth defects or reproductive toxicity.
Lead can vary widely from product to product and from batch to batch, according to lab tests ordered by the news service, and vinegars are not regularly tested by any agency. Vinegars are acidic and make the metal fully soluble so it’s more easily absorbed into the bloodstream.
Environmental Health News asked Paul Mushak, an internationally recognized toxics scientist, to conduct computer modeling of several scenarios of children consuming vinegar.
Children 5 to 7 years old who live in houses free of lead in the air and in the drinking water probably have average lead levels of 2.0 micrograms per deciliter of blood.
Eating one tablespoon a day of the vinegar with the highest lead concentration found in 2002 tests – 307 parts per billion – would raise those children’s lead levels 30 percent to 2.6 micrograms per deciliter, calculated Mushak, who has helped the Environmental Protection Agency and several other agencies develop health standards for lead.
One tablespoon is the Food and Drug Administration’s average daily serving size, although vinegar industry representatives say that is higher than typical consumption.
Bruce Lanphear, a professor of children’s environmental health at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, said those small increases “may seem subtle” but “the effect on a population is substantial.”
Increasing lead levels in U.S. children by just 1 microgram per deciliter “would result in a large increase in the number of children with learning problems or behavioral problems,” Lanphear said.
Michele Corash, a San Francisco attorney who represents the vinegar industry, said the producers don’t do anything to add lead to their products. She said her clients have hired experts who determined that lead in the soils of the grape-growing region of Modena, Italy, made its way into balsamic vinegar.
“Grape juice, wine, they all have trace amounts of minerals that are naturally occurring, including lead,” and shouldn’t fall under the purview of Prop. 65, Corash said. “Virtually all foods have trace levels of one or many chemicals.”
Some toxicologists hypothesize that production and storage are the main sources of lead contamination rather than the soil.
A lawsuit that led to California’s warnings began when the Environmental Law Foundation in Oakland tested some 60 vinegar products in 2002. Forty-seven had lead, all red wine or balsamic red wine vinegars. White vinegars and vinegars made from rice, raspberries or figs didn’t have lead levels that would trigger warnings.
The law firm filed suit in 2003 and 2004 against 39 suppliers and retailers, and a San Francisco Superior Court approved a settlement in 2007 requiring warning signs on store shelves.
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