Caryl E. Waggett, Allegheny College – Links Between Lead Poisoning and Food Insecurity

On Allegheny College Week:  There are links between lead poisoning and food insecurity.

Caryl Waggett, associate professor of global health studies, delves into these connections.

Dr. Caryl Waggett is an Professor, Global Health Studies, at Allegheny College in Meadville, PA. She teaches and conducts research at the intersection of human health and the environment, exploring how humans change and modify their natural and built environments, and how in turn these environments impact human physical and social health and well-being. Her current research focuses around children’s health and indoor environments, building upon my research findings of elevated lead levels in children and high percentage of homes and yards in rural northwest Pennsylvania failing federal EPA safety thresholds. Based on these results and extensive community input, she founded and is the Director of Healthy Homes — Healthy Children, a not-for-profit initiative designed to address rural children’s health, including cardiovascular health, asthma / respiratory diseases, and toxics exposures.

In addition, she has actively collaborated with the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to provide faculty development opportunities in the environmental health field to ensure that how to educate future business, professional and political leaders on how every action has an impact on human health and the challenges of addressing entrenched health disparities once established.

Links Between Lead Poisoning and Food Insecurity


For decades, the public viewed lead poisoning as “resolved,” thanks to regulations banning lead in paints and gasoline.  While widespread media attention to cases such as Flint, MI have brought recent headlines, lead has never really gone away.  Expansive use of lead – in pipes, solder, paints, gasoline – has left a legacy of persistent heavy metal in dust and soil.  It is most well recognized in urban areas, but affects both urban and rural communities, across racial and economic divides.  Cognitive impacts of lead are irreversible and have greatest impacts on the developing brains of toddlers.  But perhaps one of the greatest injustices is the insidious relationship between lead exposure and food insecurity. 

Elemental lead looks to the body like calcium.  It is not a direct match, but both have two positive charges.  If the child is calcium-deficient and has been exposed to lead, the body absorbs lead where calcium is needed.  Lead is not good for bones. It causes them to become weaker and more brittle. Lead is an even worse replacement for calcium needed to mediate cell-to-cell communication within the nervous system.  A lead-poisoned child has lead – not calcium – at junctures between nerve cells.  When the brain sends a signal, the message can’t pass through.  That signal will seek alternate pathways, but this takes time.  When it finally gets through, the response may be inappropriate.  Picture a pre-schooler trying to answer a question but responds 30 seconds too late. The child may be perceived as distracted or talking out of turn.  With continued lead exposure over time, the issue is exacerbated and can evolve into severe behavioral challenges.  So, lead exposure can affect children regardless of location or ethnicity.  Food-insecure children – who don’t consume milk, fortified cereals, leafy greens, or vitamins – are the ones most likely to experience the worst cognitive impairments from lead exposure.