Heavy Metals in Baby Food: The Potential Side Effects of Lead, Arsenic, Mercury and Cadmium

Most packaged baby food sold in the U.S. contains worrisome levels of at least one heavy metal, according to a consumer group.

Researchers at Consumer Reports checked 50 products intended for babies and toddlers which are available countrywide for the most harmful heavy metals: cadmium, lead, mercury and inorganic arsenic. Exposure to such chemicals at a young age can have long-lasting and irreversible effects.

All products had measurable levels of at least one of the tested heavy metals, though that does not necessarily mean they would harm a child's health. Around two-thirds of products contained what researchers described as worrying levels of at least one heavy metal, and 15 products could potentially damage the health of children if more than one serving per day were eaten.

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

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The Consumer Reports survey also included a survey of more than 3,000 people revealing that more than 90 percent of parents feed children under three packaged food at least on occasion.

Despite the startling results, Dr. James Dickerson, chief scientific officer at Consumer Reports, urged parents who have fed their children baby food not to worry. Eating those products does not guarantee a child will fall ill, but they may heighten the risk. Additionally, the chances of a child developing certain health conditions are also reliant on genetics and exposure to other heavy metals such as lead paint or contaminated water, he said.

Lead, which is sometimes found in paint and dust in old buildings, had previously been associated with stunted intellectual and physical development. Last year, a study by scientists at Duke University was the latest to make that connection; they found that adults who as children were exposed to lead had lower IQ scores on average than those who were not.

Similarly, inorganic arsenic is believed to impact intelligence, according to a Columbia University study of school-age children in Maine.

A consumer rights organization has warned of heavy metals in baby food. Getty Images

A 2012 study by Harvard University concluded that children exposed to higher levels of cadmium were three times more likely to have learning disabilities and require special education. Found in the soil, cadmium is prevalent in certain meats, products containing cereals, vegetables, nuts and pulses, and starchy roots or potatoes. Research suggests it can also cause bone, kidney and lung diseases, according to Consumer Reports.

Long-term exposure to mercury, meanwhile, can lead to nerve damage, muscle weakness and coordination problems, and can harm vision and hearing.

Commenting generally on the dangers of heavy metals, Professor Mary Fewtrell, child health and nutritional lead at the U.K.-based Royal College of Paediatrics, told Newsweek, "We know that inorganic arsenic intake may affect long-term health, with high exposure reported to be associated with increased risk of disease, mortality and impaired development.

"High concentrations of inorganic arsenic are found in some rice-based foods and drinks widely used in infants and young children. In order to reduce exposure, we recommend avoidance of rice drinks for infants and young children. Ideally, the inorganic arsenic content should be declared on packaging of infant foods and formula. Moreover, infants and young children should consume a balanced diet including a variety of grains as carbohydrate sources."

This article has been updated with comment from professor Mary Fewtrell.