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One in 5 jars of baby food has lead in it, should parents be worried?
A new analysis of baby food sold in supermarkets found that 20 percent of food and juices contain lead. The American Academy of Pediatrics say no level of lead exposure is safe for babies. Does that mean you shouldn't buy baby food anymore? What the experts are saying. - photo by Jennifer Graham
Your baby's first food may have included a serving of lead, according to a recent analysis of data collected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The Environmental Defense Fund reviewed 10 years of records and found that 1 in 5 samples of baby food and juice contained lead, a natural element that can be toxic when it builds up in our bodies.

Although the amount of lead detected in baby food is within levels the government considers safe, the FDA standards date to 1993, and some health officials say they should be updated. Leading pediatricians say no amount of lead exposure is safe for children, and that those 6 and younger are expecially susceptible to lead's toxic effects.

When lead is consumed or inhaled by children, it can lead to behavioral and learning problems, hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

"Children who have elevated blood lead levels are more likely to have speech delays, cognitive difficulties, lower IQs," Dr. Jennifer Lowry, a pediatrician and toxicologist at Childrens Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, and chairwoman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Environmental Health, said in USA Today.

And the effects of lead poisoning cannot be reversed, the World Health Organization says.

Does this mean that parents should avoid the baby food isle and start pureeing their own carrots and beets? Some pediatricians already recommend that, but the American Academy of Pediatrics offers a more temperate approach, suggesting that parents make sure that their children eat a variety of foods so that exposure from any one source is limited.

And for more reasons than just the potential for lead, they might want to go easy on the juice.

What the report says

The Environmental Defense Fund is a New York nonprofit founded 50 years ago. Not to be confused with the Environmental Working Group, which each year publishes a "Dirty Dozen" list of foods most likely to contain pesticide residue, the Environmental Defense Fund advocates for solutions to climate change, overfishing and pollution, among other causes.

In its new analysis of government data, the fund found that lead was more often present in baby food and beverages than in food products that aren't for babies. Lead was present in 20 percent of samples of baby products, but in just 14 percent of food not marketed for babies.

The baby products that most often contained lead were root vegetables (such as carrots and sweet potatoes), teething cookies and crackers, and fruit juice. Among juices, grape juice was most likely to contain lead, followed by mixed juices, then apple juice, then pear juice. Orange juice had the lowest occurrence of lead.

The defense fund says that lead in juice is more worrisome than lead in solid or pureed foods because juice is more likely to contain soluable lead, not particulate, and soluable lead is more easily absorbed. When the body takes in more lead that it can excrete, lead is stored in the teeth and bones; over time, accumulating levels cause a condition called lead poisoning.

On their websites, leading baby food manufacturers say their products are within the FDA's allowable levels and that they do their own internal testing to ensure their foods and juices are safe.

"We tested 2,000 samples of our foods and juices over the last three years and can confirm all Gerber foods and beverages tested are safe and we follow the best available guidance from the U.S. FDA. This includes tests of more than 1,000 samples of Gerber juices, of which 100 percent were under the 15ppb limit set by the EPA for drinking water. We know babies need extra care, and we are always working to improve," the Gerber website says.

The first question under Beech-Nut's "frequently asked questions" is "Do Beech-Nut baby food products contain lead?"

The company answers, "Even the highest quality, organic and non-GMO fruits and vegetables contain very tiny levels, or trace amounts, of lead and other elements because they commonly occur in nature, especially root vegetables, because lead occurs naturally in soil." The website goes on to note the FDA's position and says, "Beech-Nuts real food for babies have strict standards we believe among the strictest in the industry."

How did it get there?

The data the Environmental Defense Fund analyzed came from the FDA's annual Total Diet Study, in which government officials buy and analyze hundreds of types of food from all over the country, four times a year. The purpose of the study is to determine the nutrients in the food, as well as any contaminants.

The information the Environmental Defense Fund obtained did not include the manufacturers of the products tested, so there's currently no way for parents to know what types of baby food and juices contained lead and which ones didn't. The fund has submitted a Freedom of Information request asking for the information.

Until more information is released, what is known is that 1 in 5 unspecified baby food products tested between 2003 and 2013 contained traces of an element that is bad for children. And 4 out of 5 products didn't.

Moreover, neither the Environmental Defense Fund nor the FDA are sure how the lead got in the products that had it.

The defense fund speculates that contaminated soil or leeching from materials used during processing and packaging could be responsible. Food could also come into contact with airborne particles as it is processed, the report said.

The FDA is more pragmatic. "Lead is in food because it is in the environment and lead cannot simply be removed from food. Absent our ability to prevent lead from entering the food supply, the FDAs goal is to protect human health by ensuring that consumer exposure to lead is limited to the greatest extent feasible," the agency says.

The FDA has set an acceptable level of lead at 6 micrograms a day, but says it is currently reviewing that policy because "new scientific information has become available with respect to neurotoxic effects of low levels of exposure to lead."

The World Health Organization says, "Even blood lead concentrations as low as 5 g/dl, once thought to be a 'safe level,' may result in decreased intelligence in children, behavioural difficulties and learning problems."

But for the average parent, those numbers are useless, since there's no way to know how much lead a child inhales or ingests each day. Even the FDA's standards for manufacturers are bewildering and inconsistent.

"For bottled water its 5 parts per billion, for juice its 50 parts per billion, and for imported dried fruits and certain candies its 100 parts per billion," Joanna Nix of Mother Jones magazine reported.

Getting the lead out

As the harmful effects of lead poisoning became known in the 1970s, the United States and other countries around the world took steps to decrease exposure, such as banning lead in paint and other products, and removing lead from gasoline. (Some people even believe the change from leaded to unleaded gas is responsible for the decline in violent crime in the U.S., Kevin Drum reported in Mother Jones last year.)

Because lead occurs naturally in the Earth's crust, it can't totally be eradicated in the air and food. But there are ways to minimize exposure and risk.

Lowry, with the American Academy of Pediatrics, said that feeding children a wide variety of foods helps to decrease the risk of getting too much lead from any one source. She also recommends that parents stick to recommended serving sizes; the more children eat, the more lead they're potentially able to consume.

Parents may also want to reduce their children's intake of juice in light of the Environmental Defense Fund's finding that juice and grape juice, in particular was one of the products that most often contained lead. Even before the defense fund report was released, the American Academy of Pediatrics had revised its policy on juice, urging parents not to give juice at all to children under the age of 1, and encouraging parents to offer children of all ages whole fruit more often than juice.

As for making your own baby food, some pediatricians say that's a great idea if you've got the time and desire.

When parents ask me the question 'what is the best brand of baby food to feed my baby?' my answer is homemade. 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," Dr. Keith Fabisiak, assistant chief of pediatrics at Kaiser Permanentes Campbell Medical Center in Chicago, told Karen D'Souza of The Mercury News.

Also, the CDC says that when making baby formula with tap water, parents should use cold water, not hot. Heat dissolves contaminants in the pipes, making hot water more likely to contain higher concentrations of lead.