Arsenic, mercury and other toxic metals found in most baby foods tested, report says

An investigative report released Thursday reveals that harmful chemicals are hiding in an array of common baby foods, including toxic metals that can stunt children’s brain development.

Of the 168 baby foods tested by the investigators, 95 percent contained one or more toxic chemical, such as arsenic, mercury, lead and cadmium — and 25 percent of the foods tested positive for all four “heavy metals that can affect brain development,”according to the report produced by Healthy Babies Bright Futures, a coalition of non-profit groups, donors and scientists.

Only nine of the tested foods were free of toxic chemicals, according to the report. The lab-testing was done on brands including Gerber, Enfamil, Mott’s and Juicy Juice, and on products ranging from formula and yogurt to teething biscuits and cereals. The foods were purchased around the country at retailers such as Amazon, Safeway, Target, Publix, Walmart and Whole Foods. Here is the full report, including which foods tested positive for which chemicals.

Healthy Babies Bright Futures said in a news release that “decades of scientific research show that low levels of exposure to these heavy metals harm children’s developing brains with impacts that include IQ loss and other learning and attention deficits.”

Gerber spokesperson Kelly Schneider said in an email to McClatchy news group that the “report may have caused unnecessary alarm about the safety of foods for children.”

“Because trace amounts of many elements like arsenic and lead occur naturally in our environment, it’s possible they can be found in fruits, vegetables and grains,” Schneider wrote. “Given their natural occurrence in our soil and water, many food safety and agricultural experts suggest that it is not feasible to achieve a “zero” level of these elements – even in homemade foods made from organic ingredients.”

Schneider said children’s health is Gerber’s No. 1 priority and that the company’s food safety standards “are among the strictest in not just the U.S., but in the world.”

Some foods tested by Healthy Babies Bright Futures were worse than others, the report found: Rice-based foods, carrots, fruit juice and sweet potatoes were “higher risk foods for neurotoxic harm,” the researchers said. Four out of the seven baby rice cereals that were tested contained the toxic variety of arsenic in levels higher than “FDA’s proposed action level of 100 parts per billion,” the report said.

“Arsenic, lead and other heavy metals are known causes of neurodevelopmental harm,” Philip Landrigan, Director of Boston College’s Program in Global Public Health and the Common Good, said in a statement. “Low level exposures add up, and exposures in early life are especially dangerous. The cumulative impact of exposures is what makes this a significant concern that demands action.”

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But there are safer alternatives, according to the researchers, who recommended rice-free snacks, multi-grain cereal, oatmeal cereal and soothing foods for teething such as frozen bananas and chilled cucumbers.

“Parents can protect their babies today by choosing nutritious and affordable alternatives to the most contaminated foods,” Landrigan said. “And, to protect the babies of tomorrow the food companies and the FDA need to step up and do more.”

In highlighting the dangers of toxic metals for children, the report pointed to “peer-reviewed studies published in the past seven years that show loss of IQ, attention deficits and other learning and behavioral impacts among children who are exposed. Also, three of the metals (arsenic, lead and cadmium) are human carcinogens.”

Even though toxic metal levels may be concerning, researchers said today’s numbers are still an improvement.

“Current arsenic contamination levels in rice cereal and juice are 36 percent and 75 percent less, respectively, than the amounts measured a decade ago,” report author Jane Houlihan said in a statement. “When FDA acts, companies respond. We need the FDA to use their authority more effectively, and much more quickly, to reduce toxic heavy metals in baby foods.”

Researchers are calling on the FDA to act in a petition that asks the agency to set “health-based limits that include the protection of babies’ brain development.”

“We’re calling on FDA to protect the health of babies by cutting down the levels allowed in rice-based baby foods sold in stores — including puffs baby snacks — to under 25 ppb for arsenic and 8 ppb for lead,” the petition says, adding that those levels would be “comparable to what our tests found in safer non-rice alternatives.”

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Jared Gilmour is a McClatchy national reporter based in San Francisco. He covers everything from health and science to politics and crime. He studied journalism at Northwestern University and grew up in North Dakota.