Baby food and formulas tested positive for arsenic, lead and BPA in new study

A baby holds a bottle and sits in a high chair.
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An alarming study released Wednesday found many baby food products test positive for arsenic, including 80% of infant formulas. And, that's not the only dangerous contaminate found.

The Clean Label Project, a nonprofit advocating for transparent labeling, tested baby food, infant formulas, toddler drinks and snacks purchased within the past 5 months. The group looked at top-selling formulas and baby food using Nielson data, and also included emerging national brands. After about 530 baby food products were tested, researchers found 65% of products tested positive for arsenic, 36% for lead, 58% for cadmium and 10% for acrylamide. All of these chemicals pose potential dangers to developing infants. 

Jennifer Lowry, pediatrician and toxicologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., who is not affiliated with the research, said these chemicals can affect fine motor skills and cognition. 

Mainstream brands including Gerber, Enfamil, Plum Organics and Sprout were among the worst offenders — scoring two out of five in the Clean Label Project's report card for toxic metals. Plus, 60% of products claiming to be "BPA free" tested positive for the industrial chemical bisphenol A. The quantities of contaminates range, but some products tested positive for up to 600 parts of arsenic per billion. That's far more than just trace amounts. 

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Arsenic was the most common contaminate spotted in the Clean Label Project study. Nearly 80% of infant formula samples tested positive for arsenic. The toxin is associated with developmental defects, cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity, diabetes and even cancer, according to the World Health Organization.

Jaclyn Bowen, executive director of Clean Label Project and a food safety scientist, said rice-based baby food such as snack puffs had some of the highest levels of arsenic.

In 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed a limit of 100 parts per billion of arsenic in infant rice cereal, but isn't enforcing that limit. Rice often absorbs arsenic from contaminated soil as it grows in the environment.

"It is important for consumers to understand that some contaminants, such as heavy metals like lead or arsenic, are in the environment and cannot simply be removed from food," Peter Cassell, a FDA spokesperson.

Lead, also found in food tested by the Clean Label Project, has been found in baby food before. Just a few months ago, the Environmental Defense Fund found 20% of 2,164 baby food samples tested contained lead. No amount of lead is safe, but it's not regulated.

Low levels of lead in children's blood have been connected to lower IQs, slowed growth, behavioral problems, hearing issues and anemia, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Clean Label Project posted a list of products it tested, along with a star-rating grade informed by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, on its website. Bowen said she hopes the data helps parents become better advocates for their children's health, and creates change in the baby food business.

"The baby industry needs to do a better job in protecting America’s most vulnerable population," Bowen said.

Tracy Loew, (Salem, Ore.) Statesman Journal contributed to this report.