CLEVELAND — Robin Brown is a Cleveland grandmother, helping to raise her two daughters' infant children, concerned about about lead and other toxic metals in the baby food she's feeding them.
Brown told News 5 she knows all too well about the effects lead can have on the development of child, since her 27-year-old daughter was diagnosed with lead poisoning at the age of four.
Brown is calling on the federal government to do more in improving lead and heavy metal standards in baby foods, after seeing two studies released by Healthy Babies, Bright Futures indicating the agency found toxic heavy metals in 95% of the baby food that was tested.
“It’s very concerning for me as a parent of lead poisoned child that is now an adult," Brown said. “That is appalling to me that we are allowing businesses to make a profit off our babies lives. It’s scary, it’s really scary that people do not care enough for our children to stop these kinds of practices.”
Brown who is also a member of local environmental group Concerned Citizens Organized Against Lead, which helped establish tougher laws in Cleveland to address the lead paint issue, believes more stringent heavy metal standards for baby food are needed as soon as possible.
Judy Martin and Delores Gray with northeast Ohio groups Survivors, Victim’s or Tragedy and Brickhouse Wellnesssays the issue of lead in baby foods has been known for ten years, yet new standards have still not been established.
This is something that shouldn't be happening right now, Gray said. “It’s definitely a lack of urgency, it’s not really being compassionate about what’s really going on.”
The Food and Drug Administration responded immediately to News 5 stressing the presence of lead and other heavy metals doesn't necessarily mean the food is unsafe, and that it is taking steps with its Closer to Zero Action Plan to establish more rigorous standards for heavy metals in baby foods by 2024.
The FDA issued the following statement:
The FDA has been actively working to lower the levels of lead and arsenic and other heavy metals in the US food supply. The Closer to Zero action plan [fda.gov] we released last year builds on our research analyzing food samples, improving testing methods to detect lower levels in food, and assessing exposure to lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury.
Low levels of these environmental contaminants are present in many foods across the food supply. In general, there aren’t specific foods that we can point to as the main source of exposure to these environmental contaminants. In addition, lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury are found in many nutritious foods, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, as well as in fish and meat, because plants and animals take-up nutrients from the environment in the same way as they take-up contaminants. Our goal, therefore, is to reduce exposure to these elements as low as possible while maintaining access to nutrient-rich foods that are essential for child growth and development.
The cornerstone of our work is developing guidance to industry on levels of contaminants at which we may take action to ensure that foods that violate safety laws are removed from the market. In April, we issued draft guidance [fda.gov] on action levels for lead in juices. If finalized, these levels will be the most rigorous standards in the world for lead in juices. In addition, we have drafted action levels for lead in a variety of foods intended for babies and young children and guidance for industry on these levels is under interagency review. We continue to make steady progress towards evaluating the science to establish reference levels for arsenic and we have made significant progress in our understanding of cadmium and expect to be able to draft action levels for cadmium in foods intended for babies and young children sooner than anticipated.
We recognize that it is concerning and confusing for consumers that foods they rely on for their family may contain environmental contaminants. The presence of a contaminant does not necessarily mean the food is unsafe, or not healthy or nutritious. At the FDA, we measure the level of the contaminant, the exposure based on consumption, the toxicity of the contaminant, and the age of consumers when deciding whether a product is potentially unsafe.
The FDA cannot reduce consumer exposure to environmental contaminants from food on our own, and we will continue to work with industry, federal and state partners, and multi-stakeholder partnerships with a shared goal of safer foods.
But Jane Houlihan, Research Director with Healthy Babies, Bright Futures told News 5 the Food and Drug Administration needs to act more swiftly.
The organization, which is made up of independent doctors, nurses and environmental engineers explained in a 2019 study that the FDA tested, "168 baby foods spanning 61 brands and found that 95% of baby foods tested are contaminated with one or more of four toxic heavy metals—arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury. All but nine of the 168 tested baby foods contained at least one of these four toxic metals. And 87% of foods tested contained more than one toxic heavy metal."
“It’s been a problem that’s been known for about a decade and the FDA has just been real slow to take it on," Houlihan said. “It’s a big problem for children, the exposures are every day for babies in this country and across so many different foods that they eat.”
Houlihan added it's a challenge for parents to go out of the way to find safe options while shopping
“It’s difficult to shop your way out of it as parent, you can not completely shop your way out of it and it really does need action from FDA. Arsenic, lead. mercury, cadmium can occur naturally in the soil and it makes the problem a little trickier to tackle," she said.
Houlihan suggested rotating foods to avoid focusing on one food group for your baby.
“Parents should choose a variety of foods, instead of serving the same food day-after-day is a really important step because you’ll avoid accidentally concentrating a particular contaminant in your child’s diet. If you’re switching from rice cereal to other kinds of cereal for your baby, you’re going to be reducing their arsenic exposures, and you’ll be sending a message with your purchases to companies. For heavy metals companies can be testing their irrigation water, they can be growing in cleaner fields, they can put additives in soil like lime that can change the amount of metals that the plant uptakes.”
The Healthy Babies, Bright Futures2022 study concluded parents making homemade baby food were not able to escape the heavy metal issue.
Meanwhile, Brown is hoping new heavy metal standards will be established as soon as possible.
"And here we go trying to buy the right things from the right places and it’s toxic," Brown said. “Lead should no be a problem today, this is silent epidemic that has been kept silent for too long.”