New Study Shows Higher Lead Exposure Risk for Bottle-Fed and Black Infants

Image: Nithin Pa/Pexels

by Amy Lupica, ODP Contributing Writer

A new study released last week found that 80% of homes in the U.S. have lead in their tap water and that babies fed formula mixed with tap water were the most at risk for lead exposure. Additionally, researchers found that Black infants were more likely to be exposed than any other demographic. While lead is harmful to everyone, it can delay and prevent proper brain development in young children and infants, and leave lasting damage that can follow them into adulthood.

Why This Matters: Because of the way that lead accumulates in the body, ingesting even small amounts of it over a long period of time can be damaging to human health. The effects of long-term lead exposure in children include reduced IQ, lower academic performance, and attention deficit disorders. The study, conducted by Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF), found that 15% of homes had high enough concentrations of lead to cause an IQ drop of half a point in infants exclusively fed formula mixed with tap water. 

Only 26% of infants in the United States are exclusively breastfed from birth to six months of age. Most will be fed some form of formula, most likely powdered, during that time, which may put them at risk for lead exposure.

Twenty-six percent of Black infants are never breastfed, more than any other demographic. Many of these infants are fed exclusively with formula mixed with tap water. 

  • Black infants are often more likely to live in areas plagued by lead, and when that lead makes it into their formula, it can disadvantage them from birth. 
  • Christin Farmer, the founder of Cleveland based Birthing Beautiful Communities, explained that in her city, maps showing lead in water supplies lined up very closely with maps of disadvantaged and low-income neighborhoods, “Black children have a disadvantage before they even arrive.”

Too little, Too Late: For infants, who consume more water per pound than children or adults, feeding with formula mixed with tap water can introduce a large volume of lead to their bodies. Any lead accumulation often goes unnoticed for too long because pediatricians don’t normally screen babies for lead until they are one year old. Federal and local governments make it difficult to take proactive steps to prevent lead exposure. 

The Department of Housing and Urban Development and many city governments require that a child be poisoned by lead before stepping in to remove lead hazards. Residents may be expected to cover some of the costs of the updates and may not be able to pay.

A Big Fix: Lead in drinking water continues to be a major issue across the United States. HBBF’s study sampled water from homes in 343 cities and towns in 46 states

  • The EPA estimates that 6-10 million homes receive their tap water through pipes that predate the 1986 federal ban on lead pipes. 
  • Despite how widespread the problem is, findings from the Pew Charitable Trusts found that removing and replacing contaminated infrastructure could yield billions of dollars in future benefits. 
  • Removing lead drinking water lines from the homes of children born in 2018 alone could protect 350,000 children and yield $2.7 billion. 
  • The EPA, experts say, has dragged its feet, allowing loopholes in the system to disqualify dangerous pipes from removal processes.

Jane Houlihan, research director for HBBF, wants families to know that there is no need to panic and that there are ways to make sure that every feeding method is safe for infants. She encourages families to have their water tested, use water filters as an affordable way to prevent lead exposure, and use cold water for consumption as it is less likely to leech contaminants from pipes.

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