Lead exposure in an Italian population: Food content, dietary intake and risk assessment

Marcella Malavolti, Susan J. Fairweather-Tait, Carlotta Malagoli, Luciano Vescovi, Marco Vinceti, Tommaso Filippini

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48 Citations (Scopus)
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Background and aim: Lead is a highly toxic heavy metal released into the environment after natural and anthropogenic activities. Excluding populations in occupations where there is possible lead contamination, food is the major source of human exposure. In this study, we determined lead contamination in food and beverages consumed in a Northern Italy community and performed a health risk assessment. Methods: We collected a total of 908 food samples and measured lead levels using inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry. Using a validated food frequency questionnaire, we assessed the dietary habits and estimated daily lead dietary intakes in a sample of 719 adult individuals. We performed risk assessment using a benchmark dose and margin of exposure approach, based on exposure levels for both adverse effect of systolic blood pressure and chronic kidney disease. Results: Foods with the highest lead levels include non-chocolate confectionery (48.7 µg/kg), leafy (39.0 µg/kg) and other vegetables (42.2 µg/kg), and crustaceans and molluscs (39.0 µg/kg). The estimated mean lead intake was 0.155 µg/kg bw-day in all subjects, with little lower intakes in men (0.151 µg/kg bw-day) compared to women (0.157 µg/kg bw-day). Top food contributors were vegetables, cereals, and beverages, particularly wine. In relation to risk assessment, the estimated dietary intake was lower than levels associated with cardiovascular risk and nephrotoxicity. Conclusions: Our study provides an updated assessment of lead food contamination and dietary exposure in a Northern Italian community. The margin of exposure risk assessment approach suggests that risk of detrimental effects due to dietary lead intake is low in the investigated population. Nonetheless, these exposure levels for adverse effects are not reference health standards, and no safety threshold value can be established for lead. As a consequence, other and more subtle adverse effects may still occur in vulnerable and occupationally exposed individuals, particularly in relation to the nervous system.

Original languageEnglish
Article number109370
JournalFood Research International
Early online date2 Jun 2020
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2020


  • Dietary intake
  • Food contamination
  • Lead
  • Margin of exposure
  • Risk assessment

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