This article was originally published in the Sun Sentinel.
The last thing you want to hear when you’ve already been up all night caring for a baby, buffeted by the emotional turmoil of nursing and teething and sleep deprivation, is that the food you’re feeding the infant may not be safe. There may be lurking dangers in those mushed up carrots and peas.
Unfortunately, about 20 percent of baby food samples tested over a decade-long period had detectable levels of lead, according to a new report from Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit group. Even worse is that baby food seems to show higher levels of contamination than regular food (which only hit 14 percent). It’s enough to make a mommy want to cry.
Researchers evaluated data collected by the Food and Drug Administration from 2003 to 2013, as NPR reported. This included 2,164 baby food samples. They found 89 percent of grape juice samples, 86 percent of sweet potatoes samples and 47 percent of teething biscuits samples contained detectable levels of lead.
“The levels we found were relatively low, but when you add them up — with all the foods children eat … it’s significant,” says study author Tom Neltner of the Environmental Defense Fund.
It should be noted that none of the baby food samples exceeded the Food and Drug Administration’s allowable levels of lead. However, the FDA is in the process of reviewing its standards, and there’s a lot of concern that current standards don’t reflect the latest science about the potential health risks, especially for young children.
Many pediatricians believe there is no safe level of lead when it comes to babies.
“I think the onus is really on FDA and industry to change their standards to reflect what we know, that there is no safe lead level,” said pediatrician Jennifer Lowry, who heads the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Environmental Health.
The FDA has “old standards … and they haven’t been updated in decades,” Lowry said.
The really scary part: The CDC concluded that “even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement. And effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected.” Gulp. That sounds like a developmental time bomb.
So, what can parents do?
Of course, one option is make your own baby food. Parents who’ve been taking the time to do that ought to be feeling pretty good right about now.
“When parents ask me the question what is the best brand of baby food to feed my baby, my answer is home-made,” says Dr. Keith Fabisiak, assistant chief of pediatrics at Kaiser Permanente’s Campbell Medical Center, “Even the baby foods that are labeled as ‘organic’ or ‘all natural’ can still contain significant amounts of contaminants like lead and arsenic, so the best baby food is the one that you make yourself…Although this takes some additional effort, it is easier than most people think and is the only way you know exactly what is in your baby’s food.”
Fabisiak suggests that parents invest in a simple food processor to make the task easier. He advises you make a batch of baby food and then freeze it overnight in an ice cube tray. The next morning you can pop out the frozen cubes of baby food into a larger freezer container for storage. Each cube will contain about one ounce of home made baby food, so all you need to do is take a few cubes out of the freezer to thaw at each meal.
But there are other things you also can do to minimize the risk.
Pediatricians also recommend that children eat lots of different kinds of fruits and vegetables. This can help lower the risk from a single food. Diets high in iron, calcium and vitamin C can reduce the absorption of lead.
Cutting back on juice is another strategy. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently recommended new limits on fruit juice consumption: 4 ounces for children 1-3 years old, 4 to 6 ounces for 4-6 years old and 8 ounces for 7 years and older. And the pediatric group says children under 1 year should not drink any juice. At. All. As a bonus, if you stick with water and milk from the outset, you may create a health habit that lasts a long time.
The CDC also has useful advice for avoiding other primary sources of lead, which include paint in houses built before 1978 and toys, cookware and containers that are not lead-free. Children under six are the most vulnerable as they frequently put household objects in their mouths. Paint containing lead is at its most dangerous when it begins to deteriorate, peel off and turn into breathable particles of dust. That’s why pregnant women and children should never be present during renovation of housing built before 1978.
One particularly interesting tip: Use only cold water from the tap for drinking, cooking and making baby formula. (Note: Hot water is more likely to contain higher levels of lead. Most of the lead in household water comes from the plumbing in your house, not from the local water supply.)
The FDA says its goal is to protect human health by “ensuring that exposure to lead is limited to the greatest extent feasible.” However, it also points out that traces of lead in food can come from the environment.
To complicate matters, it’s not clear where the lead detected in baby food came from. If lead is in the soil, it can be absorbed by crops growing in that soil. So lead “cannot simply be removed,” according to an FDA fact sheet.
So it’s up to parents to take whatever steps they can to protect their babies.