Recent articles in the news discuss alarming levels of heavy metals in baby food. This has been an ongoing concern for families, as heavy metal exposure can result in moodiness, hearing and vision changes, tremors and poor memory in children.
Heavy Metals in Baby Food
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the “low levels of heavy metals found in baby foods are likely a relatively small part of a child’s overall heavy metal exposure risk.” Heavy metals are found naturally in the Earth’s crust as well as released into the environment by pollution and can concentrate in the soil. Thus, they are absorbed by fruits, vegetables, grains and grass-fed animals. They can also get into processed food during the manufacturing and packaging process. You will likely read most about concentrations of lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury in baby foods; however, exposure can come from multiple other sources.
Other Sources of Heavy Metal Exposure in Childhood
Lead exposure can occur in homes with peeling paint, through water coming out of lead containing pipes, from soil or water where a child may play, from family members who work in jobs with lead exposure (construction, demolition) or from second- and third-hand tobacco smoke/vapor exposure. Children around second-hand smoke from cigarettes or vaping are exposed to cadmium as well.
Arsenic can contaminate well water. It can also be found in rice and rice cereals.
Mercury can come from eating contaminated fish (mostly concentrated in predatory animals such as shark, swordfish and albacore/white tuna).
How to Reduce the Risk of Heavy Metal Exposure
Our goal, therefore, should be to reduce risk of exposure from all of these elements, including baby food. The AAP recommends the following methods:
- Breastfeed, if possible, to avoid risk of exposure to metals.
- Do not smoke or vape. Cigarette smoke contains heavy metals as well as other toxic substances, and vape coils allow the release of heavy metals to be exhaled by users and inhaled by those around them.
- Consider making your own fresh baby food at home to avoid additional heavy metals from the manufacturing or packaging process. You can use a blender or food processer to mash up fruits or veggies, so babies can enjoy.
- Serve a variety of foods — fruits, vegetables, grains and lean protein — foods that are rich in essential nutrients can lower the exposure to metals found in some foods.
- Try a variety of grains. Instead of or in addition to rice, you could use oat, barley, couscous, quinoa, farro and bulger. Avoid using rice milk or products with brown rice syrup to limit exposure to arsenic.
- Make healthy fish choices, such as light tuna, salmon, cod, whitefish and pollock as they contain less mercury.
- Check your water to ensure it does not contain elevated levels of lead or arsenic. Your local health department can help with this.
Next Steps for Parents Concerned About Heavy Metal Exposure
At this time, there is no need to have your child tested for heavy metals. Your pediatrician tests all children for elevated lead levels at their 12-month well visit. If you are concerned about exposure, talk to your pediatrician and/or reach out to your regional Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit. They offer support to parents concerned about environmental toxins.