Lead Found in Calcium Supplements

People who take calcium supplements usually hope to build strong bones, not heavy metals.

But that’s exactly what may be happening, according to a team of researchers who found traces of lead in several calcium supplements currently on grocery and pharmacy shelves.

Nutritional experts fear this discovery might unnecessarily scare the 5 percent of the population who currently take the mineral. But by highlighting the issue for consumers, investigators say they hope to motivate all the calcium supplement manufactures to reduce lead levels to undetectable amounts.

Earlier research detected the lead in calcium tablets and activist groups had pushed to regulate those levels. But the lead levels persist, the new study finds.

A Third of Pills Contained Lead Researchers at the University of Florida, Gainesville, are reporting that eight of the 22 calcium products they tested — including popular national brands such as Caltrate 600 — contained lead, the toxic metal that can lead to anemia, high blood pressure, brain and kidney damage in adults and developmental damage in children.

The study, published in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, found several of the products contained as much as 3 micrograms per 1,500 milligrams of calcium, approaching the Food and Drug Administration’s recommended safety cutoff of 6 micrograms per day. This is of special concern for those who may take calcium in high amounts, such as those on dialysis who need extra calcium and women battling osteoporosis.

“This should not be a reason to stop taking calcium supplements,” says Dr. Edward A. Ross, lead author of the paper and head of the renal disease program at the University of Florida’s School of Medicine. “But it should be a reason to look for better ones.”

But Dr. Robert Heaney, a professor at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., who consults for some calcium supplement manufacturers, argues in an accompanying editorial that all the products tested were well below the FDA’s cutoff limit.

“In truth, this is not bad, but good news,” he writes. “The calcium sources available today are generally very safe.”

Lead, Lead Everywhere Lead is present in the air, soil and water around us, as well as foods such as berries, raisins and salads, forcing us to take in small levels every day, Heaney explains.

So how does lead end up in the calcium tablets? Many calcium products that tout themselves as “natural” come from oyster shells mined from mineral beds in the ocean that naturally contain lead.

Thanks to regulations eliminating lead from the gas we pump, the paint we use and the cans and bottles we eat from, the FDA reports that ingested lead levels have dropped significantly in this country, from 30 micrograms a day in the early ’80s to fewer than 5 micrograms a day in the mid ’90s. Corresponding levels of lead in our blood have dropped as well.

But for some, such as poverty-stricken children exposed to lead dust and paint in older homes, lead exposure still is a risk.

It is only because lead has been dramatically reduced from our environment that it is worth worrying about these small amounts in nutritional supplements, Ross contends.

But Heaney points out that because calcium itself happens to be a mineral that blocks the absorption of lead, it basically counteracts any possible lead contamination in the body.

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