Heavy metals, such as lead, mercury, and cadmium, are dangerous for kids and their developing brains, and there is no safe level for our children. As pediatricians, we work hard to prevent, screen, and treat kids with lead exposure. Most kids get screened when they are 1 and 2 years old, and sometimes more often in some areas of Nebraska, like the EPA Lead Superfund Site in Omaha. Here’s some good news: did you know that lead levels have actually gone down during COVID, per research published in the CDC’s February 5th Weekly Report? This is excellent news for our kids amidst the dark days of the global pandemic, when have seen mental health issues and obesity on the rise.
During the first week of February 2021, there has been some recent attention in news articles about heavy metals as well as arsenic in some of our commercially available baby foods. Needless to say, this is an unsettling finding, but is not a new issue. A report released in 2017 found lead in over 20% of baby foods. Foods with detectable levels included fruit juices (major culprits: apple and grape juices) and root vegetable (major culprits: carrots and sweet potatoes). Rice cereals and puffs have also been found to contain various trace levels of arsenic. We are uncertain where these contaminants are coming from but are likely to be from the soil and/or food processing. More investigation is clearly needed. Updated recommendations for acceptable levels of these contaminants in foods, especially foods marketed to our most vulnerable population (our children) are also needed.
What can we do as pediatricians and parents? The American Academy of Pediatrics nutrition experts recommend that variety is key. Children should eat a variety of foods, including fruits and vegetables, so that we reduce their risk to a single food. We should also follow recommended serving sizes. Children less than 1 year of age should not drink juice, which will improve oral hygiene as well. We should also minimize exposure to lead and heavy metals in other settings, such as dust generated from homes built before 1978, leaded glass windows and paints, soils, imported foods, pottery, cosmetics, and toys, and particular hobbies and occupations.
Should we avoid specific baby food brands? Not necessarily but keep in mind that organic baby foods may not be more healthy than non-organic brands, as detectable levels have been found in organic brands. In addition to offering rice cereal, we can also try oat and barley based cereals for babies starting solids.
How can I learn more? see the below links
- CDC Weekly/ February 5, 2021 / 70(5);155–161: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/wr/mm7005a2.htm?s_cid=mm7005a2_w
- Lead in food: A hidden health threat. Environmental Defence Fund. 2017: https://www.edf.org/health/lead-food-hidden-health-threat
- AAP Publications: Study: Lead found in 20% of baby food samples: https://www.aappublications.org/news/2017/06/15/Lead061517
- February 2021 news articles about heavy metals in baby foods:
o New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/04/health/baby-food-metals-arsenic.html
- Lancaster County Lead Poisoning Prevention: https://cityoflancasterpa.com/lead-poisoning-prevention-faq/
- Nebraska Depart. Of Health and Human Services Lead Info: http://dhhs.ne.gov/Pages/Lead.aspx
- Pediatric Environmental Specialty Unit: https://www.pehsu.net/
Kimberly M.R. White, MD, MS