The Messy Business of Arsenic in Baby Food

Babies ingest small amounts of arsenic with every bite of infant rice cereal. No one wants it there, from parents to cereal companies to food safety regulators at FDA. Arsenic in any amount increases lifetime cancer risk – a firmly established threat – and also likely erodes IQ when it breaches the porous barrier around a child’s developing brain, according to more than a dozen studies.

Concerned about infants’ risks, in 2016 FDA issued draft guidance and a suggested arsenic cap for cereal makers’ consideration. Companies answered with new plans and partnerships with suppliers, farmers, and scientists aimed at reducing arsenic amounts in rice. While these solutions mature, though, the risks continue to fly under most parents’ radar. Infant rice cereal remains a popular choice – 80 percent of babies eat it by their first birthday – and its arsenic levels remain uniquely high among staple first foods.

A farm-to-spoon lineup of risk factors defies a single, simple solution. Rice is often grown in old cotton fields doused in prior decades with now-banned arsenic pesticides. And the rice plant readily absorbs arsenic from fields, concentrating about 10 times more of it than other grains. Rice also requires abundant water to grow; arsenic morphs into its most toxic form in these wet conditions.

Marketing plays a role in this bleak scene as well: Infant rice cereal is touted as a good first food, and often claims eye-level, supermarket shelf space. Though many foods carry arsenic traces, rice cereal tops the list for babies. It accounts for more of infants’ dietary arsenic than any other baby food.

Parents’ typical first-line solutions for healthy food – organic and natural brands – fail in this case. Organic farming practices can’t prevent contamination left by legacy pesticides or found naturally in soil and water (as arsenic is). Natural brown-rice infant cereals don’t deliver less arsenic, either. Arsenic concentrates in a rice grain’s bran layer, an outer shell that’s intact in brown rice but stripped off in white rice. FDA’s tests found 17 percent more arsenic in brown rice infant cereals than in white.

The complexity argues for a collective shrug and a shift in focus to more tractable problems. That would be a mistake. Despite slow progress and the issue’s knotty anatomy, solutions are in reach. 

Gerber has publicized its plan of attack. It has discontinued its brown rice infant cereal. It is also testing routinely, collaborating with regulators, sourcing white rice strategically, and exploring new growing methods. The company says it has reduced the arsenic in its rice cereal. Tests commissioned by my organization, the non-profit research and advocacy group Healthy Babies Bright Futures, also suggest a decline. We found nearly 20 percent less arsenic in infant rice cereal tested over the past two years ( than FDA found in 2013 and 2014.

Other companies staking out positions include Walmart, Beech-Nut, Earth’s Best, Walgreens, and Target. In written responses to our inquiries, one of these organizations told us it was reviewing the scientific literature, and three reassured us that they meet regulatory requirements. (There is no regulatory requirement for arsenic in infant rice cereal.) Another informed us of plans to discontinue its brown rice cereal in 2018, while yet another merely said that concerns about arsenic in its cereals are “noted and respected,” scant reassurance for parents.

This grab bag of eclectic plans and positions has emerged in a vacuum of enforceable federal standards. Companies can choose to reduce arsenic levels or not, at their discretion.

As reported last December, Healthy Babies Bright Futures found six times more arsenic in infant rice cereal than in other types of infant cereal, including oatmeal and multi-grain, in tests of more than 100 cereals. A research team we commissioned from Abt Associates estimates that arsenic in infant rice cereal and other rice-based foods accounts for a loss of up to 9.2 million IQ points among U.S. children ages 0-6. For perspective, this is equivalent to 40 percent of the estimated IQ loss from childhood lead poisoning. Neurotoxins like arsenic and lead shift children’s population-wide IQ curve downward. Fewer children excel, more require special education.

Scientists and advocates have logged six years of effort to test cereal, publish data, educate parents, and persuade cereal makers and FDA to take action. The payoff is FDA’s 2016 draft guidance suggesting that cereal makers abide by a 100 parts-per-billion (ppb) cap, or action level, for arsenic in infant rice cereal.

The progress is welcome, but the guidance has confounded some leading scientists and public health groups, who argue for an action level half that amount or less. Congressional leaders are asking for an enforceable limit that protects infants from both cancer and neurological damage, in Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro’s RICE Act, introduced in 2017. 

Every day that passes matters. Children with celiac disease eat more rice than other children and have up to 14 times more arsenic exposure. Hispanic infants and toddlers are 3.4 times more likely to eat rice on any given day than other children, while Asian Americans eat nearly 10 times more rice than other Americans. Rice and rice-based snacks contain arsenic, too, as do juices from fruits commonly grown in arsenic-polluted fields. And arsenic is just one of the neurotoxic contaminants in baby food. FDA has set its sights on tackling this whole daunting problem, but needs to strengthen and finalize its arsenic limit as a first step. 

Parents don’t have to wait. They can choose other infant cereals. Oatmeal, mixed grain, quinoa, barley, buckwheat, and wheat cereals give a brain-boosting 84 percent reduction in arsenic. Organic brands also cut pesticide risks. Parents can cook rice in extra water that they pour off before eating, to reduce arsenic. For the lowest levels, families can buy basmati rice grown in California, India, and Pakistan. Or they can choose other grains instead, like quinoa and farro. 

FDA has assembled a stellar team to handle this issue, and has declared it a priority. Companies are making inroads. Now let’s get all half-hearted and unfinished solutions beefed up and across the finish line. Every baby matters, and every day makes a difference.

This article originally appeared in

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