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California Children Are Contaminated

The levels of arsenic, banned pesticides, and dioxins exceeded cancer benchmarks in each of the 364 children tested. Which foods were the primary sources of toxic pollutants for preschoolers and their parents?

April 9, 2014 |
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Supplementary Info

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Sources Cited


Images thanks to Crossett Library Bennington College via Flickr.


Recently the diets of California children, ages two through seven, were analyzed to determine the cancer and non-cancer health effects from food contaminant exposures. Food may be the primary route of exposure to toxic heavy metals, persistent pollutants, and pesticides. Though food-borne toxic contaminants are a concern for all ages, they are of greatest concern for children, who are disproportionately impacted because they’re still developing and have greater intake of food and fluids relative to their weight. Pediatric problems that have been linked to preventable environmental toxin exposures include cancer, asthma, lead poisoning, neurobehavioral disorders, learning and developmental disabilities, and birth defects.

But the good news is that changing one’s diet can change one’s exposure. A diet high in fish and animal products, for example, results in greater exposure to persistent pollutants like DDT and dioxins and heavy metals than does a plant-based diet because these compounds bioaccumulate up the food chain, and plants are at the bottom of the food chain. Unfortunately that’s the not the kind of diet this sample of kids were eating. Cancer benchmark levels were exceeded by all 364 children for arsenic, the banned pesticide dieldrin, a metabolite of DDT called DDE, and dioxins.

Children exceeded safety levels by a greater margin than adults. This is especially of concern for children because all of these compounds are suspected endocrine disruptors and thus may impact normal development. Cancer risk ratios were exceeded by over a factor of 100 for arsenic and dioxins.

What foods were the worse? For preschoolers, the #1 food source of arsenic was poultry, though for their parents it was tuna. The #1 source for lead was dairy and for mercury it was seafood. And the #1 source of the banned pesticides and dioxins was dairy. They didn’t split up the groups by gender, but a similar study in Europe found that men had higher levels of some of these pollutants than women. For example, levels of the banned pesticide chlordane, but women who never breastfed were right up there alongside men, while the lowest levels were found in women who breastfed over 12 months. It is therefore likely that the lactation-related reduction in blood pollutant levels partly explains the lower body burdens among women compared with men. So cows can lower their levels by giving some to us, then we can pass it along to our children.

What non-cancer effects might some of these pollutants have? They can affect the immune system. Studies clearly demonstrate the ability of dioxins and related compounds to have a long-lasting and deleterious impact on immune function. This manifests as increased incidences of respiratory infections, ear infections, cough, and sore throat. At first most of the data was for during infancy, but now we have follow-up studies showing that the immunosuppressive effects of these toxins may persist into early childhood, so we should try to reduce our exposure. Because these pollutants accumulate in animal fat, consuming a plant-based diet, decreasing meat, dairy, and fish consumption may reduce exposure for children and adults alike.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Ariel Levitsky.

To help out on the site please email

Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

These findings should come as no surprise to those who saw my video Pollutants in California Breast Tissue. For an overview see CDC Report on Environmental Chemical Exposure and President’s Cancer Panel Report on Environmental Risk.

Pollutant exposure may affect the ability to have children in the first place (Male Fertility and Diet and Meat Hormones & Female Infertility). Such a delay, though, may allow one an opportunity to reduce one’s toxic burden through dietary change (Hair Testing for Mercury Before Considering Pregnancy and How Long to Detox From Fish Before Pregnancy?).

During pregnancy, pollutants can be transferred directly (DDT in Umbilical Cord Blood), and after pregnancy through breastfeeding (The Wrong Way to Detox). Once our kids are contaminated, How Fast Can Children Detoxify from PCBs? The chemicals have implications for older children too: Protein, Puberty, and Pollutants.

I touch more on the presence of pesticides and other pollutants in dairy products in my video Preventing Parkinson’s Disease With Diet.

Seafood is not the only source of toxic heavy metals. See: Videos on primary food sources of other industrial pollutants include: There are some things we can eat, though, to counteract some of the toxins:

 If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

  • Kim Mullins

    I recently discovered juice concentrate grown outside the US has high levels of arsenic in them because it’s used as a pesticide. I wonder how the levels found in poultry compare to apple juice.

  • Tobias Brown

    Begs the question of how polluted our mainstream non-organic vegetables and fruit supplies are. It’s a very concerning issue…

    • masobel

      Dr G. did a video on this topic a few weeks ago. The conclusion was that organic is better if you can afford it. If not, conventional produce is still better than no produce. A pretty good rule of thumb is that if you have to peel it (orange, pineapple etc) it’s probably ok to eat conventionally grown, but if you eat the skin (berries, greens etc,) try to get organic.

  • Plantstrongdoc M.D.

    No worries. Government will save us. They will just raise the upper safe level of the toxins. Problem solved…..

  • jessie

    Are the animals getting their toxic levels through their plant feed (assuming one isn’t consuming factory-farmed animal products)? And if so, how can we also minimize what toxins we’re getting from the plants/environment?

    • DGH

      As far as I know, many cattle are fed rendered animal products unfit for human consumption. This is what caused mad cow disease but it is still allowed in chicken and pigs. No wonder there is bioaccumulation up the food chain if animals are subject to these sorts of cannibalistic feeding practices.

    • Tommasina

      Yes, that’s exactly what’s happening. For example, chickens are fed arsenic-containing chemicals to prevent bugs and illness (and give their flesh a pink tinge), then their waste is used as fertilizer, thus returning arsenic and other toxins to the soil. Dr. Greger goes into more details here: .

      Regarding reducing what toxins we’re getting from plants and the environment, I mentioned veganic farming above but unless you know where your produce is coming from, it’s hard to say what’s been put on it, or what’s in the soil it was grown in. At least that’s my thought on the matter. Good luck!

      • tedster

        I think that the FDA instituted a ban (2011 maybe?) on three of the four arsenic drugs used in poultry (and pig) operations. I think it was pressure from consumer groups that prompted the FDA to act. The one drug still allowed apparently is only for turkeys. (Yet another reason to go veg next Thanksgiving!)

  • MatM

    Yes, of course consuming more or a predominantly plant based diet is best but one VERY crucial point was omitted in the 4+ minute video. Eating an ORGANIC based diet will eliminate a huge portion of these pollutants regardless if it is plant or animal based. To me that is a glaring omission in the report.

    • HemoDynamic, M.D.

      It’s not that he hasn’t covered the subject before about organic vegetables. Here is a video from 2010. Watch and see the graph about nearly no residue toxin in organic vegetables.

      • MatM

        I do understand that it has been covered and it’s likely preaching to the choir here, but for some it may not be that obvious. Thanks for the links though. Also, I think I was one of those kids in the photo below. I remember those trucks coming through my neighborhood. That may explain a lot of things. ha-ha.

    • JayG

      I eat some organic grown produce but have misgivings. Animal byproducts are usually the main ingredient in “organic” fertilizers.
      Be aware that manures, blood meals, etc. do not have to come from organic raised animals to meet “organic” certification. As noted in a NF video, arsenic from chicken feathers used as fertilizer have contaminated rice. There is always the possibility of contamination with viruses, bacteria, antibiotics, etc.. It is legal to apply raw uncomposted manure to organic crops up to 4 months prior to harvest.
      With huge amounts of animal excrement generated by factory farms, industrial operations may be spreading this waste on “organic” crops as a means of disposal.

      • Tommasina

        JayG–great point. In case others are curious, Dr. Greger addresses this question here:

        Also, I’m not sure if you’ve heard about the veganic farming movement, but some farmers are transitioning away from using animal manure as fertilizer, and instead are using their own vegetable compost. Growing this way can actually be considered a traditional technique that’s been lost in many cultures with the rise of animal agriculture. The logic is: since nitrogen originates in plants, these farmers can return it to the soil using plants as well. I’ve met a few farmers at the farmers market who are trying to grow this way, but I’m not sure if any larger operations who sell to grocery stores have adopted this technique.

    • Darryl

      The problem with the persistent organic pollutants like the “Dirty Dozen” or “Nasty Nine” is that they’re persistent. They’re found in similar amounts in conventional and organic produce (1, 2, 3) decades after they were banned. The main way to avoid exposure is to avoid eating animals that bioaccumulate them in fatty tissue, regardless of whether they’re organic or conventional.

      • MatM

        Darryl, good points, but even some of the research that you referenced notes that the pollutants in question were at lower levels of concentrations in organic produce. In my quest for better health I have become personally convinced that we should eat a predominantly plant based diet. My personal preference for animal protein will likely not disappear so I choose to eat those forms of protein that have shown to be lower in those pollutants. For example, grass fed and finished beef and wild Rainbow Trout/Steelhead (ocean run Rainbows) in many cases test low in PCB’s and other pollutants. Great discussion. Thanks.

  • HemoDynamic, M.D.

    I had a patient that told me she used to run behind the truck spraying DDT in her neighborhood when she was a child. It was supposed to be good for them and reduce the insect population. Check out these vintage images. Notice the city on the truck. I wonder if this is the reason we had that Waco incident so many years ago?

    • Thea

      Wow. Oh wow. That’s like a scene from a horror flick.

    • JacquieRN

      So interesting…what we know, think we know and what we don’t know…the key, is to learn faster!

    • DGH

      As a physician and even as a curious individual, I enjoyed looking at these pictures. I wonder whether in 50 years people will be looking at pictures of people eating processed food today and shaking their heads in disbelief. Probably by then we will have far better, more conclusive epidemiology on the adverse effects of SAD.

      • JacquieRN

        I always think about that too…I think in a 100yrs people will say, did they really pump drugs through people’s veins and then cut them open…

      • Plantstrongdoc M.D.

        In the future they will be horrified to learn that the doctors of our time tried to solve a psychological, metabolic and cultural problem with dangerous surgery – bariatric surgery

    • Aaron

      Uh, that’s a scene from a movie. “Tree Of Life”, one of my favorites. But please don’t try to pass these off as real photos if you’re not sure. It damages the credibility of the message.

      • Tommasina

        I’m sure there was no bad intention here. I also recognized it from Tree of Life–that’s a great one. Thanks for pointing that out though, Aaron :)

  • mykamakiri

    Dr Greger,

    Speaking of contamination; would you care to elaborate on the topic of fluoride? I found this statement from Harvard fairly interesting:

    “Fluoride seems to fit in with lead, mercury, and other poisons that cause chemical brain drain,” Grandjean says. “The effect of each toxicant may seem small, but the combined damage on a population scale can be serious, especially because the brain power of the next generation is crucial to all of us.”

  • Timar

    Any idea which children are safe to eat?

    • b00mer

      As we all know, Dr. Greger advocates a plant-based diet to decrease consumption of all biomagnified pollutants. However if you don’t want to give up children completely, I’d try to source those children being the youngest of several siblings.

      • Han

        brilliant reply