The Kingsburg Times
Author Carol Williams
Our nation’s babies are knowingly exposed to toxic substances that have the potential to maim and kill in the quantities currently found in their food. This is abhorrent to not only parents but to all of us.
In the now-infamous Senate sub-committee report submitted in February of this year, it was shared that four major baby food brands — Beech-Nut, Gerber, Earth’s Best Organic and Happy BABY — sold products that their own internal testing showed contained the heavy metals arsenic, lead and cadmium at levels far higher than what most health experts consider safe for infants. Technically, these manufacturers weren’t violating any rules because the FDA has not set standards for heavy metals in baby food.
Harm caused by heavy metal exposure is usually described as toxicity and the injury done is often permanent. These heavy metals, depending on the concentration of exposure can cause anything from a minor acute illness such as constipation to interference with normal nervous system or reproductive development, all the way to death.
We have a history of heavy metal toxicity in this country. Leaded gas was a known poison the day it was invented in 1921, when General Motors engineer, Thomas Midgley Jr. told his boss that he’d discovered a new additive, the highly toxic compound called TEL or lead tetraethyl. It worked to reduce the “knocking” in car engines. Two years later the first tank of leaded gas was sold. Midgley wasn’t there for the event because he was sick in bed with severe lead poisoning, writes History.com. The next year, there was serious backlash against leaded gasoline after five workers died from TEL exposure at the Standard Oil Refinery in New Jersey. Nonetheless, leaded gasoline went into general sale later that decade.
Those early actions set a precedent that took over 60 years to undo: it wouldn’t be until the mid-1970s that a growing body of evidence about the dangers of leaded gasoline lead the EPA to enter into a years-long legal struggle with gasoline-makers over phasing out leaded gasoline. That struggle resulted in the ban of leaded gasoline in 1986, which produced a nearly 80% reduction in Americans’ blood lead levels by the late 1990s. This abatement was clearly needed and effective, but came to fruition long after the harmful effects of lead exposure were very well known. The petroleum industry was able to apply significant pressure that resulted in decades of foot-dragging by those entities charged with protecting Americans, in the same way that the FDA is negligent today.
“Children are the first and worst victims of leaded gas; because of their immaturity, they are most susceptible to systemic and neurological injury,” wrote James Lincoln Kitman for The Nation. “A significant body of research links lead exposure in children to violent crime” and is linked to “a whole raft of complications later in life. Among them lower IQ, hyperactivity, behavioral problems and learning disabilities.” writes Kevin Drum for Mother Jones,
Since the February Congressional report, lawsuits were filed within days and throngs of parents, already dealing with the stresses of the pandemic, took to social media with unbridled rage. “You knowingly sell food that hurt babies for profit,” one mom wrote on a baby food company’s Instagram page. “You are MONSTERS.” Some said they’d been in tears over the news, believing they’d harmed their children. Several demanded to see testing results, threatened to sue, or said they were planning to take their children to the doctor to have their blood tested for heavy metals. Others said they were tossing out all their store bought food and boycotting the companies in the report.
But the offense of contaminated baby food distracts from the larger problem. Consumer watchdogs say that heavy metals contamination is relatively common across the food supply, so we are all exposed to probable serious health threats, and the federal government is sticking to their decades-long tradition of abdicating their responsibilities – the FDA’s responsibility is to ensure that Americans have a safe food supply.
There is no FDA standard for lead in baby food, but the FDA has set a 5 ppb lead standard for bottled water, 50 ppb for juice and 100 ppb for candy. By comparison, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a 1 ppb limit for school drinking fountains — a threshold that consumer advocates would like to see applied to juice, too. An FDA spokesperson said in a recent email, noting that heavy metals are found throughout the environment, “Because they (heavy metals) cannot be completely removed, our goal is to reduce exposure to toxic elements in foods to the greatest extent feasible and we have been actively working on this issue using a risk-based approach (RBA) to prioritize and target the agency’s efforts.”
The FDA’s stated goal to reduce this exposure to the “greatest extent feasible” begs the questions, “feasible for who?” Consumers or the industry? Also, it would seem that an RBA would be a good tool for an organization under the purview of the FDA and not the FDA itself. The FDA should be setting standards. Those responsible for meeting those standards should be assessing risk. If the FDA is truly that unclear about what their role is, this could explain their utter failure to protect Americans from heavy metal exposure.
What can the public can do while they wait for the FDA to act? A message–“practical steps”–is directed to parents. In it our healthcare professionals say, “do not panic, and instead focus on variety in the diet”. When being told that to panic is an inappropriate response is to deny the gravity of the situation, with a final affront being the part of the message about a focus on variety in food selection. Such variety is heavy metal Russian roulette, a game of chance. Using variety as a nutrition plan means that neither you nor anyone else will ever know how much heavy metal you or your child is consuming. This does not qualify as meaningful guidance.
Examples can be provided ad nauseam that describe the absence of government standards of all types. Please read the attached resources for further reinforcement of the claim that the “FDA has failed”. They failed to set standards for baby food that companies have to meet. And they’ve failed to help busy, sleep-deprived parents make better choices,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group. “The idea that new parents are going to navigate this is insane,” he added. “We’re not all nutritionists and toxicologists.”
Here in California we have, in theory, extra protection against health threats under Prop. 65. This will be the topic for a future story…
By Carol Reimer Williams, MS, RDN
References and Resources:
Baird C. & Cann M. 2012, Environmental Chemistry, 5th ed., W. H. Freeman and Company, New York, ISBN 978-1-4292-7704-4.] Reference data.