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New report finds "toxic heavy metals" like arsenic and mercury in popular baby foods

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Posted at 10:24 AM, Feb 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-04 12:24:16-05

Baby food from several of the country's largest manufacturers are "tainted" with toxic heavy metals, according to a disturbing new government report.

The report, released Thursday morning, says those baby foods have "significant levels" of substances including lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury. The metals can be especially dangerous to babies' and toddlers' brain development.

Parents often say they are looking for the healthiest, safest food for their babies. But as Connecticut mom Carrie Kerner found out, it's difficult to look for something you may not even be aware of.

"I just looked for the ingredients," Kerner told CBS News consumer investigative correspondent Anna Werner. "If there was any added preservatives, sweeteners or added sugars, I wouldn't buy it, so I basically just wanted to get organic."

Kerner had her first child, Chloe, a year ago. Ever since, she said she has been paying close attention to what is in Chloe's food.

But one thing Kerner and her husband Bryan, who is a doctor, never worried about was whether the baby food contained toxic metals.

She said the revelation was "very concerning as a new mom."

"That's the least thing a mother wants to think about. You're already worrying about her choking — about what goes into these foods," Kerner said.

Yet a new congressional subcommittee investigation found major concerns over the presence of metals in baby food. The report says "baby foods are tainted with dangerous levels" of "toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury."

Researchers say that developing brains of babies and young children are "uniquely vulnerable" to toxic chemicals, which can cause "permanent brain injury." Troubling risks include lowering IQ, problems in school and even criminal behavior later in life.

Illinois Democratic Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi told CBS News that getting heavy metals out of food sold for infants is critical.

"I don't know a mom or dad that wants neurotoxins in their babies' foods," he said.

Investigators asked seven U.S. baby food manufacturers to provide internal documents and test results.

Of the four that did, all showed the presence of lead, arsenic and cadmium in their own test results — at levels the report says "eclipse" maximum levels set for other products.

Compared to the levels allowed by the FDA in bottled water, the report claimed, the results were "up to 91 times the arsenic level," "up to 69 times the cadmium level," and "up to 177 times the lead level."

CBS News asked those companies for comment, and all who responded said they are committed to safety.

All the companies that responded also said they either comply with government standards, have developed their own internal quality and testing standards, or both. Several said they are part of the Baby Food Council, a group formed with the goal of voluntarily reducing heavy metals in baby foods.

The problem is not new, however — Consumer Reports did its own testing of 50 nationally-distributed baby foods in 2018, finding "every product had measurable levels of at least one" of three heavy metals, and 68% "had worrisome levels of at least one heavy metal."

Consumer Reports' James Dickerson says there's not too much cause for alarm, since these heavy metals are naturally occurring.

"That's the real big issue. You want to minimize the risk, you can't eliminate it entirely, but you can minimize it. And there are steps that we can take," Dickerson said.

He tells parents to limit rice and sweet potato products, which tend to absorb more pollutants because of the way they are grown. Dickerson also recommends avoiding snacks like crackers and puffs, which in Consumer Reports' investigation had higher levels of heavy metals, and vary their child's diet.

Congressman Krishnamoorthi believes that voluntary entry efforts are not enough. He plans to introduce legislation to step up FDA oversight.

"So now we need the FDA to step into the breach and do what I think the American people believe it is, is its job to do," he said. "Which is to make sure that the food that their babies consume is safe."

For worried parents wondering if they should throw out their baby food — experts say no, there is no need to panic if the products are in the pantry, and that the key is moderation.

When asked for a response, the FDA said it has been working on reducing exposure to toxic elements in foods, but acknowledges there is more work to be done.

According to Healthy Babies Bright Futures, a group dedicated to "measurably reduce the largest sources of babies' exposures to toxic chemicals," nearly nine out of ten baby foods tested had no enforceable federal safety limit for these heavy metals.

The FDA has been made aware of the report released today by the Subcommittee in Economic and Consumer Policy Committee on Oversight and Reform at the U.S House of Representatives and is reviewing its findings.