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Heavy metals like lead, arsenic and mercury are found in commercial baby foods well above what the federal government deems safe for children, a new congressional report warns.
Members of Congress asked seven major baby food manufacturers to hand over test results and other internal documents after a 2019 report found that 95% of 168 baby food products contained at least one heavy metal. Foods with rice or root vegetables, like carrots and sweet potatoes, had some of the highest scores, but they weren't the only ones.
How concerned should parents be and what can they do to reduce their child's exposure?
As a professor and pharmacist, I spent several years researching health safety concerns with drugs and dietary supplements, including contamination with heavy metals and the chemical NDMA, a likely carcinogen. Here are answers to four questions parents ask about the risks of baby food.
How do heavy metals get into baby food?
Heavy metals come from natural erosion of the earth's crust, but humans have also dramatically accelerated environmental exposure to heavy metals.
When coal is burned, heavy metals are released into the air. Lead was commonly found in gasoline, paint, pipes, and ceramic glazes for decades. A pesticide containing lead and arsenic was widely used in crops and orchards until it was banned in 1988, and fertilizers containing phosphate, including organic varieties, still contain small amounts of cadmium, arsenic, mercury and lead.
These heavy metals are still contaminating the soil, and irrigation can expose more soil to heavy metals in the water.
When food is grown in contaminated soil and watered with heavy metal-containing water, the food becomes contaminated. Additional heavy metals can be introduced during the manufacturing process.
The United States has made great strides in reducing fossil fuel use, filtering pollutants, and removing lead from many products such as gasoline and paint. This reduced exposure to lead in air by 98% from 1980 to 2019. Processes can now also remove some of the heavy metals from drinking water. However, the heavy metals that have built up in the soil over the decades are an ongoing problem, especially in developing countries.
How Much Heavy Metal is Too Much?
The World Health Organization and the Food and Drug Administration have defined a tolerable daily intake of heavy metals. However, it is important to realize that for many heavy metals, including lead and arsenic, there is no daily intake that is completely free of long-term health risks.
For lead, the FDA believes that 3 micrograms per day or more is a cause for concern in children, well below the adult value (12.5 micrograms per day).
Toddlers' bodies are smaller than adults, and lead is not easily stored in bones. Therefore, the same dose of heavy metals causes much higher blood levels in young children, where it can cause more damage. In addition, young brains develop faster and are therefore at a higher risk of neurological damage.
These levels of lead are about one-tenth the dose required to achieve blood lead concentrations that are associated with serious neurological problems, including the development of behavioral problems such as aggression and attention deficit disorder. However, that doesn't mean lower doses are safe. Recent research shows that lower blood lead levels still do not affect neurological function as dramatically.
For other heavy metals, the daily intake that is considered tolerable is based on body weight: mercury is 4 micrograms per kilogram of body weight; Arsenic is currently undefined, but before 2011 it was 2.1 micrograms per kilogram of body weight.
As with lead, there is a considerable safety margin between the tolerable dose and the dose that carries a high risk of neurological damage, anemia, liver and kidney damage and an increased risk of cancer. But even smaller amounts still harbor risks.
An example of infant exposure is a baby carrot formula with 23.5 parts lead per billion, which equates to 0.67 micrograms of lead per ounce. Since the average 6 month old eats 4 ounces of vegetables per day, that would be 2.7 micrograms of lead per day – almost the maximum tolerable daily allowance.
What Can Parents Do To Reduce A Child's Exposure?
Because the amount of heavy metals varies so dramatically, food choices can make a difference. Here are some ways to reduce a young child's exposure.
1) Minimize the use of rice-based products, including rice grains, puffed rice, and rice-based biscuits. Switching from rice-based products to products made from oats, corn, barley, or quinoa could reduce arsenic intake by 84% and total heavy metals by around 64%, according to the study of 168 baby food products by the Healthy Babies Group.
It was found that using frozen pieces of banana or a clean washcloth in place of a rice grain-based bite cookie reduced total heavy metal exposure by approximately 91%.
2) Switch from fruit juices to water. Fruit juice is not recommended for young children because it is loaded with sugar, but it is also a source of heavy metals. Switching to water could reduce heavy metal intake by around 68%, according to the report.
3) Alternate between root vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes and other vegetables. The roots of the plants are in close contact with the soil and have higher heavy metal concentrations than other vegetables. Switching from carrots or sweet potatoes to other vegetables could reduce total heavy metals by about 73% that day. Root vegetables contain vitamins and other nutrients, so you don't have to give them up entirely, but use them sparingly.
Preparing your own baby food may not reduce your child's exposure to heavy metals. This depends on the heavy metal dosage of each ingredient you are using. Organic may not automatically mean that the heavy metal content is lower, as the soil could be contaminated for generations before it is converted and the neighboring agricultural water runoff could contaminate the usual water sources.
Is anyone doing something about it?
The congressional report calls on the FDA to better define acceptable limits for heavy metals in baby food. It should be noted that the heavy metal levels in some baby foods far exceed the maximum levels allowed in bottled water. It also recommends standards for testing in the industry and suggests that baby food manufacturers must include levels of heavy metals on their product labels so parents can make informed decisions.
Baby food manufacturers are also discussing the issue. The Baby Food Council was founded in 2019 to bring together large infant and toddler nutrition companies, as well as advocacy and research groups, to reduce heavy metals in baby food products. They created a baby food standards and certification program to work together on testing and certification of raw materials. Ultimately, baby food manufacturers must consider changing sources of raw materials on the farm, using fewer spices, and changing processing practices.
The US has made important advances in reducing heavy metals in air and water since the 1980s, and drastically reducing exposure. With additional focus, it can also further reduce heavy metal exposure in baby food.
Keep heavy metals away from beer and wine
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How safe is your baby food? Company Reports Show Arsenic, Lead, and Other Heavy Metals (2021, Feb 23)
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