Ninety-five per cent of baby foods tested contain one or more toxic chemicals. These include lead, arsenic, mercury and cadmium. These were the findings of a recent investigation by Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF) and its partner organisations.

One-quarter of foods tested contain all four toxic chemicals tested by the lab, all of which are heavy metals that can affect brain development.

HBBF’s tests uncovered notably high levels of heavy metals in some containers. Four of seven infant rice cereals tested in this study contained inorganic arsenic (the toxic form of arsenic) in excess of FDA’s proposed action level of 100 parts per billion (ppb).

Eighty-three per cent of baby foods tested had more lead than the one-ppb limit endorsed by public health advocates, and one of every five foods tested had over 10 times that amount.

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.

Testing uncovered higher risk foods for neurotoxic harm to be rice-based products, sweet potatoes and fruit juices. Safer alternatives are easily accessible and have been identified in the report. There is no federal safety limit for toxic heavy metals in nearly nine out of 10 foods tested.

The study tested 168 baby foods spanning 61 brands and found that 95 per cent of baby foods tested are contaminated with one or more of four toxic heavy metals—arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury.

All but nine of the 168 tested baby foods contained at least one of these four toxic metals. And 87 per cent of foods tested contained more than one toxic heavy metal. All four toxic heavy metals were detected in one out of every four foods tested.

Scientific evidence confirms that arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury are neurotoxic, negatively impacting a child’s healthy brain development.

The report cited 23 peer-reviewed studies published in the past seven years that show loss of IQ, attention deficits and other learning and behavioural impacts among children who are exposed. Also, three of the metals (arsenic, lead and cadmium) are human carcinogens.

“Arsenic, lead and other heavy metals are known causes of neurodevelopmental harm,” stated Dr Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician and director of the Programme in Global Public Health and the Common Good, Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society, Boston College.

“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,” he added.

According to a new analysis by Abt Associates commissioned by HBBF using federal data of national surveys of food contamination and consumption, American children aged between 0 and 24 months collectively lost more than 11 million IQ points from exposure to arsenic and lead in food, with rice-based foods accounting for one-fifth of this loss. Fifteen foods account for over half of the total estimated IQ loss.

HBBF used the Abt analysis, baby food test results, and FDA market basket studies to identify which baby foods pose the highest risk to brain development while also offering easily accessible safer alternatives.

These safer alternatives have 80 per cent lower levels of toxic heavy metals, on average, than the riskier foods. The results point to five baby foods with higher risk, which include rice-based snacks/meals (puffs snacks, teething biscuits, rice rusks, and infant rice cereal), carrots, sweet potatoes and fruit juices.

Safer alternatives to higher risk foods include rice-free snacks, non-rice cereal (such as multi-grain and oatmeal cereals), other soothing foods for teething (like a frozen banana or chilled cucumber) and serving a variety of vegetables.

Organic standards do not address these contaminants, and foods beyond the baby food aisle are equally affected. Parents can find more details about safer alternatives in HBBF’s safer baby foods fact sheet.

Data from the study shows that when FDA has issued a draft guidance or standard, levels have noticeably decreased over time.

Despite the evidence that FDA actions can inspire market-wide change, for nearly nine out of 10 baby foods tested there is no federal safety limit for arsenic, lead and other heavy metals.

“Current arsenic contamination levels in rice cereal and juice are 36 per cent and 75 per cent less, respectively, than the amounts measured a decade ago,” stated HBBF research director and study author Jane Houlihan.

“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,” she added.

HBBF and its partners have created a petition to the FDA urging them to take action by setting health-based limits that include the protection of babies’ brain development.

Without prompt FDA regulation to limit contamination levels, accelerated action from baby food companies is necessary to reduce toxic heavy metals to safer levels in foods.

The newly-announced Baby Food Council, comprising leading baby food companies and supported by non-profit organisations, including the Environmental Defence Fund (EDF) and HBBF, seeks to reduce heavy metals in the companies’ products to as low as reasonably achievable using best-in-class management practices.

“Parents can protect their babies today by choosing nutritious and affordable alternatives to the most contaminated foods,” said Dr Landrigan.

“And, to protect the babies of tomorrow the food companies and the FDA need to step up and do more,” he added.

HBBF’s partners for this project include Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Campaign for Healthier Solutions, Coming Clean, Ecology Centre, Environmental Justice Health Alliance, Learning Disabilities Association of America, Organizacion en California de Lideres Campesinas, Inc, and Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services.

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