Many popular baby food brands contain dangerous levels of mercury, lead, cadmium and arsenic, according to a new investigation by a House of Representatives oversight committee. Exposure to these toxic heavy metals can be harmful to babies, since they can slow growth and development, increase cancer risk and potentially lead to behavioral and learning issues.
One baby food brand contained as much as 180 parts per billion, or ppb, of inorganic arsenic. The Food and Drug Administration has finalized only one metal standard for baby food, setting a limit of 100 ppb of inorganic arsenic for infant rice cereal, and even this standard is far too high to protect against arsenic’s neurological effects on children.
Although heavy metals are harmful for both children and adults, children are more vulnerable to such exposures because of their developing bodies. Arsenic and lead are naturally found in the environment and can end up in food from the soil, water and air. Lead may also transfer to food products during processing, or as a contaminant in food ingredients.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agree that there is no safe level of lead for babies and children. Lead exposure damages children's brains and has been linked to delayed growth. Lead is also a carcinogen.
According to a 2019 FDA study, cadmium may work in concert with lead to result in abnormal infant neurodevelopment. A 2012 study from Harvard researchers found that children with higher cadmium levels were three times more likely to have learning disabilities and enroll in special education. The adverse health effects of cadmium also were seen at exposure levels that are common in U.S. children. And exposure to mercury affects the developing brain and can cause lifelong deficits in learning, memory and reaction times.
Some of the baby food companies did not cooperate with the investigation, possibly obscuring the presence of even higher levels of toxic heavy metals in their products.
Here are three tips for parents trying to limit exposure to these toxic ingredients.
- Rice is often contaminated with arsenic, so consider other options, besides rice cereal, as babies’ first food. Pureed greens and vegetables may be good alternative sources of fiber. Check with your pediatrician if in doubt.
- When looking for infant formula, unfortunately organic does not cover every concern – call the company and ask about their heavy metal tests.
- Teething biscuits often contain harmful metals, including arsenic, according to researchers at Healthy Babies Bright Futures, whose work helped inform the congressional report. At this time we are reviewing the market and do not have a product recommendation.
The FDA must do more to protect babies from exposure to toxic heavy metals by setting higher standards for baby food. Until it does, choosing organic will eliminate some concerns about the foods you’re feeding your baby but won’t address the presence of heavy metals, so you may want to call the baby food company to ask about their heavy metal tests.
If you’re in doubt about the best foods to feed your baby, consult your pediatrician.