Overall, they found at least one of the substances in 95 percent of the products. Such heavy metals have been linked to lower IQs and learning problems in children in the short term, and to type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, and reproductive problems later in life.
The new testing supports Consumer Reports’ previous research on the safety of foods intended specifically for infants and toddlers, the group most at risk for health problems related to heavy metals. “These new findings are similar to ours both in the types of foods that pose the greatest risk and the levels of these heavy metals in various foods,” says James E. Rogers Ph.D., director of food safety research and testing at CR. Our tests had found elevated levels of inorganic arsenic (the toxic form) and other heavy metals in almost half of the fruit juices we tested, and our study of 50 packaged foods for infants and toddlers detected measurable levels of contaminants in every single product.
In the recent study from Healthy Babies Bright Futures, some foods also stood out as being particularly risky. Products made with rice, particularly cereals, were the top sources of heavy metals, especially inorganic arsenic. Four of the seven rice cereals tested by the group had arsenic levels above the proposed Food and Drug Administration limit of 100 parts per billion (ppb). Fruit juices, carrots, and sweet potatoes were also often contaminated with higher levels of heavy metals.
What’s more, 83 percent of the foods tested contained more lead than the 1 ppb limit recommended by public health advocates; 1 of every 5 had more than 10 times that amount.
“For a number of these metals, there’s no known safe level,” says Jane Houlihan, research director at Healthy Babies Bright Futures and a co-author of the report. “Any amount that accumulates over time in a baby’s diet can be a concern.”
These heavy metals are neurotoxins and may affect children’s brain development. “Your body can excrete some of these metals over time, but while they’re circulating through the body, they can cause harm,” Houlihan says. “And some do build up in the body.”
As a result, babies’ IQs may be lowered and they can develop learning and attention issues, research suggests. A study commissioned by the group that looked at food consumed by babies from birth to 2 years attempted to quantify the cumulative effect of on the mental ability of the nation’s children. It concluded that exposure to those heavy metals in foods accounted for a collective loss of 11 million IQ points, with foods containing rice accounting for 20 percent of the points lost.