Beware of what you eat: Study shows heavy lead concentration in Filipino staple food

“You are what you eat” is a widely held nutritional principle, but what if the food that you eat contains a heavy concentration of lead?

Rice and fish are staple food for Filipinos. However, prior studies showed that areas such as Metro Manila showed heavy lead contamination in air, water, plants, and soil which may pollute agricultural and aquatic products commonly taken by the country’s people.

According to a study, ingested lead causes neurologic deficit, attacks bone marrow, and invades the peripheral and central nervous systems upon chronic exposure.

Lead is a principal environmental contaminant since it can be distributed in different components of the earth. Adults absorb around 20-30% of the heavy metal on ingestion while children absorb up to 50%,” the study explained.

To determine if rice and fish samples from Metro Manila contain lead and to see if the lead levels go beyond the acceptable limits, the study randomly collected ten varieties of rice and fish from Metro Manila markets and analyzed their lead levels using Flame Atomic Absorption Spectrophotometry (FAAS), a procedure to identify the chemical composition of samples using absorption of specific frequencies of light by atoms. Wet preparation of the experiment was done at the University of the Philippines Manila while analysis of lead concentration was done at De La Salle University Manila.

The result stated that all ten varieties of rice contained heavy metal lead; with two, the Malagkit and NFA rice brands, found to be beyond the acceptable limits of lead in food set by United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA).  The National Food Authority (NFA) rice brand is the cheapest and least processed brand in the country.

Likewise, the projected blood lead levels of all brands of rice exceeded the safety limit for children set by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC); while four varieties such as NFA, Malagkit (regular), Dinorado and Malagkit (violet) went above the safety limit of lead levels for adults.

The study also showed that all kinds of fish exhibited levels of lead beyond the acceptable limits in food, children and adults. The author noted that these are all sellable kinds of fish, except for janitor fish (sailfin armored catfish) which was included in the analysis as some Filipinos extract fish sauce from it.

In another set of baseline studies conducted by the author, it was found out that vegetables, fruits, and shellfish in the same area had heavy metal contamination.

Considering the results, the study recommended doing similar studies on other rice varieties and fishes to assess Filipino staple food’s safety and to improve food processing methods to lessen lead contamination. Moreover, the study advised initiating environmental (soil and water body) clean-up and identifying other sources of lead contaminants for proper legal action by the Philippine government.

This study entitled “Heavy Metal Lead in Filipino Staple Food as Studied in Metro Manila, Philippines” written by Dr. Judilynn Solidum of the University of the Philippines Manilais available in ScienceDirect at

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