Heavy metals like arsenic and lead are found naturally in soil and water. They can also be found at higher levels in fields polluted by pesticides, contaminated fertilizer or industrial operations. Crops absorb these metals, and they end up in the food supply – not just baby food, but all food.
Babies are more sensitive to the toxic effects of heavy metals. All four heavy metals we found in baby food – arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury – can harm the developing brain. Impacts can include IQ loss and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Three of these metals also cause cancer (arsenic, lead and cadmium). Even though foods on every aisle of the grocery store contain heavy metals, baby foods are the top concern simply because babies face greater risks from the exposures.
No, the answer isn't switching to homemade purees or organic baby foods. Federal data shows that baby food sometimes has higher levels and sometimes lower levels of heavy metals, compared to comparable fresh or processed foods purchased outside the baby food aisle. And organic foods are equally affected – organic standards don’t address these contaminants.
While no amount of heavy metals is considered safe, less is better. You can lower your baby’s exposures by serving a variety of foods and by following the five safer choices for baby foods in our parents’ guide.
Health issues like ADHD develop from a variety of contributing factors, not any single thing. Chemicals in food are just one of these many possible contributors. While the science shows that chemicals are contributing to the incidence of ADHD and autism, we can’t connect that single contributing factor to any single child’s condition. And food is just one source of these toxic metals in children’s lives. Water, soil, air, some consumer products and lead paint in older homes can also be significant sources.
The first thing to know is that what we found is cause for concern, but not alarm. These are small amounts of chemicals with impacts that add up over time, not from any one meal. The problem isn’t any particular brand or single container of food - these chemicals are widespread in the environment and are found in nearly all foods, not just baby foods.
But since babies and young children are more sensitive to the impacts, we’ve focused our study on helping parents choose foods that help lower their children’s exposures to these heavy metals. No amount is perfectly safe, but less is better. On the spectrum from worry to action, we recommend some simple actions.
We highlighted 5 foods in our study where you can make simple changes that will make a difference. These are rice-based foods like infant rice cereal, puff snacks and teething biscuits, as well as juices and root vegetables. See our tip sheet.
It is not part of Healthy Babies Bright Futures mission to study the effects of vaccines. Our focus is on measurably reducing exposures to neurotoxic chemicals in the first thousand days of development.
HBBF’s National Director, Charlotte Brody, is a Registered Nurse who had both of her sons fully vaccinated. Clearly, it was unnecessary to add mercury to children’s vaccines as a preservative when there were other ways to keep vaccines from going bad. The hope is that mercury as a pharmaceutical preservative remains a story of the past like the use of benzene to decaffeinate coffee or x-raying children’s feet in the shoe store.
FDA has charged a team of top agency scientists with reducing children’s exposures to heavy metals to the greatest extent possible. There may be new safety standards from this group in the years ahead. Meanwhile, some baby food companies are setting their own internal standards to get heavy metals out of the foods they make. Heavy metals levels have dropped significantly in infant rice cereal and juice as a result (though levels are still high enough that these remain higher-risk foods for babies). And in early 2019 leading baby food companies supported by non-profit organizations, including HBBF, formed a new Baby Food Council that is “seeking to reduce heavy metals in the companies’ products to as low as reasonably achievable using best-in-class management practices.” This work is just beginning, but holds great promise for creating market-wide change.
Yes! Sign the petition asking FDA to set safety standards for heavy metals in baby food. And send it to your friends, so the babies of tomorrow have safer food to eat and the parents of tomorrow have one less thing to worry about.