Why We Still Have Lead in Baby Food

It was hard to miss last week’s headlines. Congressional investigators reported high levels of toxic heavy metals in baby food.

Manufacturers should be required to test finished products and publish the results, according to the report from the U.S. House Subcommittee in Economic and Consumer Policy.

This “news” felt like déjà vu for me.

As you can see in the photo above from a 2009 campaign, I’ve been calling for regulations that can protect our children for a long time. Those baby bibs say, “I demand a change.”

Back then, I partnered with Seventh Generation and nonprofit Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families for a campaign called the Million Baby Crawl, which was a grassroots effort to help raise awareness about our country’s outdated chemical laws.

We were encouraging parents and other concerned citizens to ask Congress to pass stronger regulations and testing guidelines to protect our health. We were also garnering support for the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act of 2008, introduced by New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg (who died in 2013).

The aim of the bill was “to reduce the exposure of children, workers, and consumers to toxic chemical substances.”

Well, guess what happened to that bill. Nothing!

Bills get killed (or die) all the time on the congressional floor, but just imagine how many kids could have been protected had this smart legislation passed back then.

“Over the last decade advocates and scientists have brought this to the attention of the Food and Drug Administration,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, who chairs the panel that released the 2021 report, told The Washington Post. “The FDA must set standards and regulate this industry much more closely, starting now. It’s shocking that parents are basically being completely left in the lurch by their government.”

It is shocking! But only to those who haven’t been listening.

In 2019, Healthy Babies Bright Futures, a children’s health advocacy group, released a report on testing from supermarket shelves of more than 150 foods consumed by babies and toddlers. It found that 95 percent of the products tested had detectable levels of heavy metals including arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury.

“Parents shop for baby food expecting the nutrition, convenience and baby-tested flavors of store-bought brands,” reads the executive summary of their report. “Our research shows that baby food companies need to take additional steps to reduce heavy metals in their products.”

In 2017, the Environmental Defense Fund analyzed 11 years of data (from 2003 to 2013) from the FDA and found that baby food is a significant source of lead. Plus, their research uncovered that baby food versions of apple and grape juice and carrots had detectable levels of lead more often than the regular versions.

They made recommendations for companies to:

  • set a goal of less than 1 ppb of lead in baby food and other foods marketed to young children

  • continue to prioritize lead contaminant minimization when sourcing ingredients

  • test more frequently during processing to identify additional sources of lead and take appropriate corrective actions

  • publicly commit to consumers to drive down lead levels through health-protective limits and robust product stewardship

How Are Toxic Substances Regulated?

You might be wondering how chemicals end up in baby food. First, you have to understand how chemicals are regulated in the United States.

Our main law is the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) passed by Congress in 1976. Before that, we had no records of what chemicals were manufactured, used, or released into the environment and no means of regulating them.

This law gave the EPA authority to help regulate new and existing chemicals with reporting, record-keeping, and testing requirements, and restrictions on chemical substances used commercially. It also gave the EPA authority to maintain a master list of chemicals and keep an inventory of them.

Sadly, this law has been considered one of the least effective environmental laws we have.

The EPA has little capacity to prevent a company from bringing chemicals to market. When the law was signed, more than 60,000 chemicals already in use became grandfathered into the system with no toxicity testing. The TSCA also put the EPA in charge of gathering safety data rather than the chemical companies.

It’s basically an “innocent until proven guilty” approach, which is a huge burden for any agency, and especially an overworked and underfunded one, like the EPA. Subsequently, the EPA has not routinely assessed the risks of chemicals already in use. On the rare occasion that they do, it’s a legal hassle that can take years.

Another big issue is that food is exempt from the TSCA. It falls to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to monitor and regulate toxic chemicals in our food.

The FDA website does discuss how lead, a known neurotoxin which can have devastating effects on developing brains, can enter the food supply.

Lead occurs in foods because of its presence in the environment. Lead can enter our food supply, because:

  • Lead in the soil can settle on or be absorbed by plants grown for fruits or vegetables or plants used as ingredients in food, including dietary supplements.

  • Lead that gets into or on plants cannot be completely removed by washing or other food processing steps.

  • Lead in plants or water may also be ingested and absorbed by the animals we eat, which is then passed on to us.

  • Lead can enter, inadvertently, through manufacturing processes. For example, plumbing that contains lead can contaminate water used in food production.

  • Lead in some pottery and other food contact surfaces containing lead can pass or leach lead into food or drinks when food is prepared, served, or stored in them.

Has anyone thought to take a closer look at the manufacturing plants making baby food? Are the pipes at these facilities antiquated or corroding? Have we tested the water used in the manufacturing process?

We need more transparency and accountability now, not 10 years from now.

These foods come without warning labels. No regulations require makers of baby food to test with one exception. The FDA has set a standard of 100 ppb for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal, which is interesting because the FDA also set a federal limit for inorganic arsenic in bottled water. It’s 10 ppb.

I’m sharing all of this with you to let you know the work ahead. We need more folks to get involved, which is what this newsletter is all about.

We Are Citizens Not Just Consumers

Steps we can take right now to get the toxic metals out of baby food:

  1. Contact your elected officials!

  2. Tell them the FDA needs to set guidelines for maximum levels of toxic metals and other contaminants found in food and apply them to all foods, not just one food at a time (like they did for rice).

  3. Ask manufacturers to test more than just the baby food ingredients; we need mandatory testing of finished products before they are allowed on shelves.

  4. If you are someone raising babies, check out this fact sheet from Healthy Babies Bright Futures to keep your children safe now.

Thank You To Sen. Frank Lautenberg

Working on toxic legislation reform with New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, the state’s longest serving senator who spent more than 28 years in office.

He wrote a bill in 1986 that established the Toxics Release Inventory, which required companies to disclose the chemicals they released into the environment.

Even though the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act did not pass, Lautenberg kept going. As the chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Environmental Health in 2010, he introduced the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010. An updated version of that legislation finally passed with bipartisan support in 2016, The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act.

The amendment was intended to help increase public health protections from toxic chemicals.  

Since then, the EPA has promised a review of existing chemicals with ten of them listed as a priority, but we know that many thousands still need review. Even with updates to the law it could be decades before we see any major reviews of these toxins or changes that could positively impact our health and well-being.

Bottom line: We should know what these chemicals do before we put them on the market.

America’s system for regulating industrial chemicals is broken. Parents are afraid because hundreds of untested chemicals are found in their children’s bodies. EPA does not have the tools to act on dangerous chemicals, and the chemical industry has asked for stronger laws so that their customers are assured their products are safe. —Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey