Children exposed to lead will absorb less of it if they eat less fat, a new study suggests.
Certain nutrients have long been known to affect the rate at which the body takes up lead, a toxic metal that can retard youngsters’ development, lower their IQs and damage their hearing.
Children can be exposed through dust, dirt and drinking water. Toys and houses painted before 1975 - the last year lead-based paint was used - can be sources. Water can be contaminated if it flows through lead pipes. Children may eat paint flakes or inhale or lick lead dust, which tastes sweet.
Poor children are most likely to be exposed.
Dietary calcium and iron are known to block lead absorption, but the effects of many other nutrients have not been explored.
In a study of 296 inner-city pre-schoolers, 9 months to 3 years old, the researchers found that those with high levels of fat in their diet were more likely to have dangerous levels of lead in their blood.
The researchers said if further study supports their findings, it “would further strengthen the recommendation of a low-fat diet as a healthy one for children.”
Federal health officials recommend no restriction on fats for children under 2 because it might harm their growth.
The research was led by Susan R. Lucas of the Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. The findings are reported in the January issue of the journal Pediatrics, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The quantities of fat in the children’s diets were not estimated; the researchers used only relative intakes based on questions asked of parents.
The study also found that higher levels of calories - not just fat - were associated with higher lead absorption.
A longtime lead researcher expressed doubt that higher calorie intake is linked to higher lead absorption.
Kim N. Dietrich, a developmental psychologist at the University of Cincinnati School of Medicine who has studied lead for 15 years, said lead is more readily absorbed on an empty stomach. That’s one reason doctors see higher lead levels among poor children, he said.