There's a strong chance your baby's food contains traces of toxic heavy metals, including arsenic and lead, according to a new study.
The research, commissioned by Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF) and outlined in a report released Thursday, tested 168 baby foods for the presence of four heavy metals: arsenic, lead, mercury and cadmium. They found that 95 percent of the baby foods were contaminated by at least one of the heavy metals, and one in four of the baby foods tested contained all four of the heavy metals. Only nine of the 168 baby foods tested were not found to contain traces of any of the four metals.
Among the highest-risk foods are fruit juices, as well as rice-based products, including puff snacks and rice cereals, since rice is particularly effective at absorbing arsenic, a common pesticide, as it grows. Four of seven infant rice cereals tested contained inorganic arsenic, which is the more toxic form of the metal, in levels exceeding the Food and Drug Administration’s proposed limit of 100 parts per billion.
Sweet potatoes and carrots are also big culprits since they are root crops.
The foods tested spanned 61 brands and 13 types of food, including infant formula, teething biscuits, cereals and fruit juices. They were primarily selected by parents who volunteered with HBBF's partner organizations. The parents were asked to buy foods from the most prevalent baby food brands at their local stores. Additional foods were purchased online.
Among the metals, lead was the worst offender, appearing in 94 percent of the baby foods tested. Cadmium and arsenic followed, showing up in approximately three-quarters of the baby foods tested, and mercury was the least common, found in just under one-third of the baby foods tested.
All of the metals except mercury are known or probable human carcinogens. They are naturally occurring elements and their frequent use in pesticides in the last century means they still remain in the soil and find their way into groundwater even decades after some of them have been banned from use in pesticides. The four metals are neurotoxic, posing serious threats to healthy childhood brain development.
Exposure to these heavy metals can result in lower IQs, for example. A data analysis also commissioned by HBBF showed that American children ages 0 to 24 months have already lost more than 11 million IQ points from exposure to arsenic and lead in food. Fifteen foods account for more than half of this IQ loss, with rice-based foods alone making up 20 percent of it.
"The heavy metals interfere with the way the brain is supposed to get wired," registered nurse Charlotte Brody, one of the authors of the report and the national director of the HBBF, told NBC News. "Everything we can do to drop the levels of these chemicals that kids are exposed to just gives them a better chance of learning."
Additional effects of heavy metal exposure include attention deficits, as well as learning and behavioral impacts.
One way to reduce these levels of heavy metal exposure is to push for the FDA to set regulations, Brody says. For nearly 90 percent of the baby foods tested, the FDA has not issued guidance or set standards for the maximum safe limit of heavy metals, according to the report.
"The FDA should be doing more," Brody said. "It's the FDA’s job to set rules that make food safe."
The FDA did not immediately respond to an NBC News request for comment on the study.
In the meantime, Brody says families don't have to wait to offer their kids safer alternatives to foods at high risk of toxic metal contamination. Parents can opt for rice-free snacks and non-rice cereals, such as oatmeals and multi-grain cereals, to cut back on one source of heavy metal exposure. Ensuring kids eat a variety of vegetables beyond the common sweet potato and carrot purees also helps, and swapping teething biscuits for frozen bananas can make a difference. HBBF says alternatives like these have 80 percent lower levels of the metals, on average, than the riskier foods.
"There’s so many things that we can’t protect our kids from; the places where we can give our kids a better chance, we have a responsibility as parents and as a society to do what we can," Brody said. "Lowering the levels of these exposures is one thing we can do."