Several brands of widely sold baby foods are tainted with dangerous levels of toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury, according to a new investigation by a House subcommittee. The Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization say even low levels of exposure to heavy metals can cause serious and often irreversible damage to babies’ brains.
The investigation, led by Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), chair of the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, examined internal test results and documents from four baby food brands, and found that all four were tainted with heavy metals.
Three companies refused to cooperate with the investigation, and the subcommittee said it has “grave concerns” that their refusal might hide “even higher levels of toxic heavy metals in their baby food products than their competitors’ products.”
“This is yet another example of the FDA’s failure to protect our families from the chemicals and contaminants in food,” said Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs.
“This is what happens when you let the food and chemical companies, not the FDA, decide whether our food is safe to eat,” Faber said. “For too long, the FDA has allowed food and chemical companies to exploit loopholes to fill our food with ‘forever chemicals,’ jet fuel and toxic metals like lead and arsenic. The Biden administration should immediately direct the FDA to follow the law and protect our families from these poisons.”
One brand contained as much as 180 parts per billion, or ppb, of inorganic arsenic, with that brand’s baby food sold in stores typically containing 60 ppb inorganic arsenic. Its baby food products also tested as high as 641 ppb of lead. Test results of baby foods and their ingredients include results up to 91 times the arsenic level, and up to 177 times the lead level, set by the FDA for drinking water, according to the committee’s report.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agree that there is no safe level of lead in children. Lead exposure damages children's brains and has been linked to delayed growth. Lead is also a carcinogen.
“When it comes to exposure to heavy metals, companies that make products for babies should abide by the strictest standards for health,” said Nneka Leiba, vice president of Healthy Living Science at EWG. “Babies are especially vulnerable to the effects of such toxic substances. In lieu of regulation governing the levels of heavy metals in baby foods, manufacturers must be transparent about their standards and testing. At the very least, manufacturers have absolutely no excuse for not abiding by their own safety standards.”
Baby foods containing toxic heavy metals bear no warning on packaging labels. Manufacturers are free to test only ingredients or, for the vast majority of baby foods, to conduct no testing at all.
The FDA has finalized only one metal standard for one narrow category of baby food, setting a 100 ppb inorganic arsenic standard for infant rice cereal. Even this FDA standard is far too high to protect against the neurological effects on children. For other baby foods and toxic metals, there are no FDA standards.
Essential research on the presence of these toxic heavy metals in baby food was conducted by researchers with the nonprofit Healthy Babies Bright Futures, which helped inform the report by congressional investigators.
"This compelling new evidence lays bare the FDA’s clear failure to protect babies from the toxic heavy metals in their food,” said Charlotte Brody, national director of Healthy Babies Bright Futures. “While the FDA studies the problem and companies set lax internal standards, millions of babies are exposed to these contaminants every day. It is time to step up and finally take clear action.”
“The science on these toxic metals is clear: There is no question of the harm they cause to babies’ developing brains,” added Jane Houlihan, HBBF’s research director. “Parents can only do so much to shop their way out of this problem. We need fast action by the FDA and baby food companies to protect our vulnerable infants.”
The FDA must test all baby food products for toxic heavy metals, not just the ingredients used to make the food. The agency should also require manufacturers to report levels of toxic heavy metals on food labels. It also should set maximum levels for all toxic heavy metals found in baby foods. One level for each metal should apply across all baby foods, and the level should be set to protect babies against the neurological effects of toxic heavy metals.
Parents should avoid baby foods that contain ingredients testing high in toxic heavy metals, such as rice products. EWG recommends that people limit the amount of rice they eat and find alternatives to rice-based processed foods. But the federal government has a responsibility to lower arsenic levels in the food supply where possible and to inform the public of the risks.
Baby Foods Are Tainted with Dangerous Levels of Arsenic, Lead, Cadmium, and Mercury. Staff Report, Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy Committee on Oversight and Reform, U.S. House of Representatives, February 4, 2021.
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