In the past two decades, the number of children diagnosed with neurological disorders, including autism and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), has risen at an alarming rate. While uncontrollable factors like genetics can cause these disorders, they are also linked to a child’s physical environment, including exposure to heavy metals like lead, mercury, cadmium and arsenic.
In 2021 Congress released two critical reports on how the nation’s top baby food makers are falling short when it comes to controlling the dangerous levels of heavy metals in their baby food products; pollution is also leading to higher exposure. It’s becoming abundantly clear that we are not fully protecting our babies.
How Do Heavy Metals Get Into Baby Foods?
Heavy metals are found naturally in the earth’s crust, but the ever-increasing air and water pollution worldwide also release them into the soil and water used for planting crops.
For example, countless new mothers have relied on infant rice cereal to introduce solid foods into their child’s diets. However, rice – even more than other grains – tends to easily absorb heavy metals, in particular arsenic, from groundwater.
Baby food manufacturers also increase heavy metal levels by adding other ingredients like enzymes and vitamin and mineral mixes, which are likely already tainted with toxins before being blended into the food.
Because some areas of the world have more heavy metals in the ground than others, location can be another factor. Food grown in these areas will have higher levels of metal.
Heavy Metal Exposure Affects Brain Development in Children
Exposure to heavy metals in food can give a child lasting neurological issues.
Certain metals like zinc and iron are necessary for everyone to build strong cells and aid in healthy neurotransmitter production, no matter their age. Unsafe levels of these metals, however, are cause for concern.
In addition to the increased risk of autism and ADHD, exposure to large amounts of heavy metals can cause learning and memory dysfunction as well as movement disorders. They are detrimental to crucial neurodevelopmental processes and can permanently damage cognitive function.
Babies’ rapidly developing brains make them especially vulnerable to the presence of heavy metals.
Congress Weighs In
In February 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy released its first report on the subject, Baby Foods Are Tainted with Dangerous Levels of Arsenic, Lead, Cadmium, and Mercury.
Congress requested data from seven major baby food brands: Beech-Nut, Gerber, Happy Happy Baby, Earth’s Best Organic, Plum Organics, Walmart’s Parent’s Choice, and Sprout Organic Food. They received information from just four of them; Plum, Walmart and Sprout refused to cooperate.
The lawmakers requested that the companies phase out ingredients known to contain high levels of toxins, such as rice and certain vitamin premixes, and said the brands’ internal standards allowed “dangerously high levels” of heavy metals into the baby food.
The report also urged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to set mandatory maximum allowable levels for metals in baby food and a requirement that companies list the levels of each metal on food labels.
Unfortunately, the news did not improve after Congress issued a follow-up report in September 2021. Companies continued to sell tainted products, even a few more than in the first report. And the three companies who didn’t cooperate the first time did send back the requested information, which revealed they were not operating up to necessary standards.
For its part, after receiving criticism from the subcommittee in the first report, the FDA agreed to begin working on a new program called the “Closer to Zero Action Plan,’’ which includes a timeline to set limits for the level of toxic metals in baby foods.
However, in its second report, the subcommittee told the agency its timeline was too far “in the future.” There’s no question that much more work needs to be done to decrease these unnecessary dangers to our children.