Stopping Dangerous Levels of Heavy Metals in Baby Food

A newly released government investigative report on baby foods has revealed dangerous levels of toxic heavy metals, including lead, mercury, arsenic and cadmium. It was issued on February 4, 2021, by the U.S. Congress (Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, Committee on Oversight and Reform).

Contaminated baby food exposes infants to poisoning at a crucial time in their development; the damage done lasts a lifetime.

Although the FDA currently has no guidelines for levels of heavy metals in baby food, the report reveals levels much higher than is allowable in bottled water, which are 5 ppb (parts per billion) for lead; 5 ppb for cadmium; 10 ppb for arsenic, and 2 ppb for mercury in drinking water. For example, lead levels in baby food included the report were:

  • Nurture (HappyBABY) sold finished baby food products that tested as high as 641 ppb lead. Almost 20% of the finished baby food products that Nurture tested contained over 10 ppb lead.
  • Beech-Nut used ingredients containing as much as 886.9 ppb lead. It used many ingredients with high lead content, including 483 that contained over 5 ppb lead, 89 that contained over 15 ppb lead, and 57 that contained over 20 ppb lead.
  • Hain (Earth’s Best Organic) used ingredients containing as much as 352 ppb lead. Hain used many ingredients with high lead content, including 88 that tested over 20 ppb lead and six that tested over 200 ppb lead.
  • Gerber used ingredients that tested as high as 48 ppb lead; and used many ingredients containing over 20 ppb lead

These findings are alarming but not new.

The Clean Label Project has tested hundreds of baby food items in the U.S.. and Consumer Reports has also tested and found toxins in baby food.

We know baby food from a range of brands are regularly contaminated with dangerous toxins. The question is why and how? Our 2019 Pollution Knows No Borders report answers these questions and offers solutions. Here’s what we know:

Investigating The Source of Contamination

What is the source of baby food contamination? Where does our baby food, or baby food ingredients come from? A quick look at the shelves of your local supermarket will show products from around the world.

The U.S. imports 50 to 60 percent of its fruits and vegetables, more than 80 percent of its fish and shellfish, and almost all of its spices, coffee, and cocoa. Even if products are made in the U.S., much of the ingredients are sourced from around the world.

In our global system, just as electronics and cars are assembled from materials sourced from multiple countries, food products are sometimes an amalgam of ingredients originating in multiple countries. An analysis of a frozen pizza found that it was made from 35 ingredients that had passed through 60 countries on 5 different continents.

Much of our food come from countries with high levels of pollution. As part of our Toxic Sites Identification Program, Pure Earth investigators have assessed thousands of toxic sites in over 50 low and middle-income countries in the past decade. Although they’ve found industrial and chemical pollution growing, they see scant investment to halt or reverse this trend.

  • Across India, many farmers are forced to raise their crops with untreated industrial wastewater. Only 30 percent of India’s wastewater undergoes any sort of treatment before being discharged as industrial effluent that contains multiple heavy metals and toxic chemicals.
  • In China, almost 14% of grain production is affected by heavy metal pollution in farmland soil. Cadmium was the most common pollutant, followed by mercury, copper, nickel and zinc. The total pollution rate in Chinese farmland soil was 10.18%.
  • In Indonesia, water from the highly polluted Citarum River used for irrigation has contaminated rice paddy fields, as evidenced by their discoloration.

Rice, wheat, sweet potatoes, and leafy greens–ingredients that are often found in baby food–tend to absorb more heavy metals when cultivated in polluted soil or water.

Even organic baby food have been found to be contaminated with toxic heavy metals, perhaps because the global supply chain often mixes grains and other products from a variety of sources. As a result, contaminated supplies can be mingled with cleaner products.

The Six-Step Solution

Pure Earth supports the U.S. government report’s recommendation of increased FDA regulation of toxic heavy metals in baby foods, manufacturer compliance requirements and mandatory consumer labels. But so much more is needed.

Without intervention at the source of the contamination, the risk to human health and the global food supply chain will continue and may get worse. If left unchecked, contaminated products will find its way into the supply chain. If rejected by one company, contaminated food will still end up poisoning children in another product line.

What is critical is to reduce contamination at the source. We must clean up polluted air, water and soil that contaminate crops, which enter our global food supply chain.

Remediation is feasible with widespread impact. Pure Earth’s low-cost cleanup models can be replicated. The interventions lead to cleaner soil, air and water, and also improves the lives of those families living at the sources of pollution.

Our report–Pollution Knows No Borders:  How the Pollution Crisis in Low- and Middle-Income Countries Affects Everyone’s Health, and What We Can Do to Address Itoutlines the six-step solution that we are working to implement with partners, industry, NGOs and governments around the world.

  1. Make pollution control a priority in the global agenda.
  2. Implement projects that prevent and reduce pollution at the source.
  3. Develop mechanisms to trace exposures back to the source.
  4. Expand imports testing, not with the intent of closing off imports but to provide the evidence base for cooperation between countries.
  5. Expand research into toxins and prevention.
  6. Find ways to allow consumers to monitor what they eat and consume themselves, and help with the prevention solutions too.

What Can Consumers Do Now?

While unsafe chemicals are difficult to avoid completely, people can reduce contact with some of the most harmful and common toxins. Educate yourself starting with these resources. Try to find out where your food comes from and share what you learn.

While there are contaminated baby food on our retail shelves, there are also brands that do a good job of keeping toxins out of their products. The Clean Label Project has published the results of their tests of baby foods to find what they believe to be the best and worst baby food.

Finally, support Pure Earth’s expanded efforts to reduce pollution, save lives, and protect the planet. Keeping children safe from poisoning is at the core of all our work.

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