Infant Exposure to Heavy Metals -  A Cause For Concern

Consumer Reports has weighed in on the topic of exposure to toxic heavy metals by infants.

Consumer Reports’ testing shows concerning levels of arsenic, cadmium and lead in many popular baby and toddler foods.

This includes foods made just for babies and toddlers, such as popular snacks, cereals, prepared entrées, and packaged fruits and vegetables.

Over time, exposure to heavy metals can harm the health of adults and children. One of the biggest worries: cognitive development in very young children.

“Babies and toddlers are particularly vulnerable due to their smaller size and developing brains and organ systems,” says James E. Rogers, Ph.D., director of food safety research and testing at Consumer Reports. “They also absorb more of the heavy metals that get into their bodies than adults do.”

Toxic heavy metals can also be a concern for breastfeeding mothers. 

Dr. Stephanie Canale, founder of Lactation Lab, developed a unique and proprietary test kit for measuring the level of lead and other toxins in breast milk.

“We were surprised to find elevated levels of lead in the breast milk of mothers who were unaware of any exposure to lead.”

As is the case with infants, mothers can absorb heavy metals through the foods they eat and from environmental toxins in water.

Consumer Reports' tests had some troubling findings:

• Every product had measurable levels of at least one of these heavy metals: cadmium, inorganic arsenic, or lead.

• About two-thirds (68 percent) had worrisome levels of at least one heavy metal.

• Fifteen of the foods would pose potential health risks to a child regularly eating just one serving or less per day.

• Snacks and products containing rice and/or sweet potatoes were particularly likely to have high levels of heavy metals.

• Organic foods were as likely to contain heavy metals as conventional foods.

While those results are worrisome, parents who have been feeding these foods to their children don’t need to panic, says James Dickerson, Ph.D., chief scientific officer at Consumer Reports. He notes that consuming these foods doesn’t guarantee that a child will develop health problems, but that it may simply increase that risk. And whether problems develop depends on a host of factors, including genetics and exposure to other sources of heavy metals, such as from lead paint or contaminated water. 

Consumer Reports' testing did have some encouraging findings for parents: It showed that 16 of the products had less concerning levels of the heavy metals, suggesting that all baby food manufacturers should be able to achieve similar results.

Consumer Reports has a list of suggestions for What Parents Can Do.

Lactation Lab's Dr. Canale recommends breastfeeding mothers limit their intake of foods that have been shown to be susceptible to contamination by heavy metals, such as rice products.