We talked to a pediatrician to find out if a report that found potentially-harmful nanoparticles in baby formula should concern parents.

baby being formula fed with bottle
Credit: Nicolesa/Shutterstock

Researchers at Arizona State University claim there are teeny-tiny needle-like, potentially-harmful nanoparticles in some popular brands of baby formula. But before you panic, it's important to know that clinicians are yet to link the presence of these particles to any ill-effects in babies.

The report, which was commissioned by environmental group Friends of the Earth in 2016 and has since been peer-reviewed and published in the journal NanoImpact, looked at six types of powder and liquid baby formulas, including those made by leading brands Gerber, Enfamil, Similac, and Well Beginnings that are currently sold in stores. According to the initial press release, all six were found to contain hydroxyapatite, a form of calcium, which according to Medicinenet is an essential component of healthy bones and teeth. The problem is, when scientists looked at the nanoparticles up close, they saw that they resembled itty-bitty needles.

Obviously, the idea of your precious baby ingesting little needles is upsetting to say the least. As a mom-of-three who formula fed, I'll admit to feeling alarmed as I dug into this information, especially since researchers expressed concern that these needle-shaped nanoparticles could "penetrate cell walls" and get into a baby's circulatory system, as well as other areas of their little bodies.

It's indeed the size of the particles that seems to be eliciting the most worries. You see, the FDA classifies non-nanoscale hydroxyapatite as "Generally Regarded As Safe." But many health advocates are calling on the FDA to look at whether these particular nanoparticles may be harmful to babies if ingested, and to require properly-labeled infant formula, warning that products may contain hydroxyapatites. At least eight advocacy groups have written letters to the FDA asking that they require baby formula-makers to remove the nanoparticles from their products all together.

The lead report author, Ian Illuminato, a health and environment campaigner with Friends of the Earth, said in the press release, "It's of real concern that these tiny particles are used in hundreds of consumer products, and now in infant formula, with minimal to no oversight. Companies and regulators must take extra care with a product fed to the most vulnerable among us."

Tracey Woodruff, Ph.D., MPH, a professor in the Department of OB/GYN and the Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies at the University of California, San Francisco added in the press release, "Health impacts studies on exposure to nanoparticles are few. So it is prudent to consider the potential unintended health impacts before exposing infants to them."

We talked to Danelle Fisher, M.D., chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California to find out just how worried parents should be. "On the one hand, I always want to be very concerned about what we are feeding children in terms of their development. If these particles are going to pose a threat to our baby's health, it's a very important issue to pay attention to," she told us.

However, as Dr. Fisher pointed out, we haven't seen any significant changes in health or cognition in formula-fed babies. Her phone is not ringing off the hook from parents whose babies are becoming gravely ill from ingesting these nanoparticles, she said.

Dr. Fisher also suggested that breast milk may contain something similar to these nanoparticles, which a mother might be getting from food or the environment, and that babies' bodies are efficiently digesting the nanoparticles, either from breast milk or formula, to render them harmless.

While Dr. Fisher isn't dismissing the study, she said researchers should be looking at and comparing their findings to the gold standard: breast milk. And she stressed that since formula-fed babies are not exhibiting major digestive issues, it's logical that this research, while worth considering, isn't worth losing already-diminished sleep over!

In the end, as a mom who formula-fed all three of my kids, I believe the takeaway here is that while this information is concerning, any parent who formula feeds should take solace in Dr. Fisher's words...and the fact that my girls and many, many other formula-fed babies are just fine.

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Find her on Facebook where she chronicles her life momming under the influence. Of coffee.