Studies warn of lead, arsenic, and other toxins in products for babies and toddlers. These contaminants may impact your little one's brain development. Here's what parents can do to combat the issue.

By Sally Kuzemchak
Updated October 18, 2019
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In 2017, a non-profit organization called Clean Label Project released findings from a study showing contaminants such as arsenic, lead, and mercury in leading brands of infant formula and baby foods. And now Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF) confirmed some of these scary discoveries in a new investigation.

HBBF tested 168 popular baby foods in America, from brands like Gerber, Earth's Best, Beech-Nut, and more.  The team tested these products for cadmium, lead, mercury, and inorganic arsenic, according to their article about the topic. Here’s a breakdown of the results:

  • 95 percent of containers contained toxic heavy metals (arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury).
  • One-fourth of containers contained all of these toxic metals.
  • Heavy metal contamination was highest in products containing rice, juice, and sweet potato.
  • 88 percent of foods tested "lack any federal standards or guidance on maximum safe levels of toxic heavy metals like arsenic and lead," according to the HBBF findings.

The Clean Label Project released similar results in their 2017 food study. The organization purchased 500 infant formulas, baby foods, baby cereals, pouches, and toddler drinks and snacks from 60 different brands and had them tested at a third-party lab for more than 130 contaminants, including heavy metals, antibiotics, pesticides, and BPA.

Among their findings:

  • About 65 percent of baby food products contained some arsenic.
  • Thirty-six percent of baby food samples had detectable levels of lead.
  • Sixty percent of the products labeled "BPA Free" tested positive for BPA.
  • Baby food labeled "certified organic" had higher levels of arsenic than conventional (but lower levels of pesticide residues).

Using the findings, the Clean Label Project assigned star ratings to each product tested (one star for the worst in terms of contaminants, five stars for the best) and published the lists on their website. Their highest-rated products are a mix of both organic brands and conventional.

The Effect of Chemicals in Baby Food

The heavy metals tested in these studies—cadmium, lead, mercury, and inorganic arsenic—are harmful in any amount. Lead is toxic to children's brains, and no amount has been deemed safe. Arsenic and mercury are also neurotoxins. Infants and young children are particularly sensitive these contaminants, since their brains and organ systems aren’t fully developed.

According to Consumer Reports, “Exposure to even small amounts of these heavy metals at an early age may increase the risk of several health problems, especially lower IQ and behavior problems, and have been linked to autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.” Unfortunately, these effects are long-lasting and irreversible, as the contaminants have been linked to “bladder, lung, and skin cancer; cognitive and reproductive problems; and type 2 diabetes, among other conditions” when consumed over a long period of time, says Consumer Reports.

What Parents Can Do

After the HBBF findings were released, Senator Chuck Schumer called on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take action, stating that consumers should "rightfully expect" baby food to be safe and regulated.

It's important to note that (unfortunately) these contaminants exist in the environment—so the idea that you could eat a contaminant-free diet or buy products devoid of any contaminant is just not feasible, says Jennifer Lowry, M.D., Chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Environmental Health and Chief of Medical Toxicology at Children's Mercy Kansas City. Foods take up metals like lead and arsenic from the soil and water and can also become contaminated during storage, processing, or transport. (Making your own baby food doesn't mean you're in the clear, since even fresh produce can have these contaminants too.)

But these findings may spur manufacturers to do more testing and change practices to get levels down. "We hope this is a wake-up call for brands and parents," says Jackie Bowen, executive director of Clean Label Project. They encourage consumers to call their favorite brands to ask if they test their products (and what they test them for). They also call on manufacturers to set stricter quality standards and better testing.

In fact, the Healthy Babies Bright Futures investigation found that baby food companies are already making changes. For example, fruit juice contains 63 percent lower levels of arsenic now than 10 years ago—partly because of a change in manufacturing guidelines. More action is needed, though, since the problem isn't solved.

To help combat heavy metal consumption, parents can choose safer alternatives to concerning baby foods. For example, they can exchange rice puffs for rice-free snacks, fruit juice for tap water, rice cereal for oatmeal or barley, and teething biscuits for frozen banana or chilled cucumber, recommends HBBF. And you should always do your research and reach out to companies if you have questions.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.

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