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I-TEAM: Congressional report exposes toxic metals in baby food

Published: Feb. 25, 2021 at 5:15 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - The I-Team is digging deeper after a report to Congress exposed significant levels of toxins in baby food. And we’re not just talking about a few off-brands.

You probably recognize most of these. You might even have some in your pantry right now.

There is no federal standard for lead in baby food, but there is for water, so let’s use that as an example:

The FDA has a standard for bottled water at 5 parts per billion.

Remember problems with lead poisoning in water in Flint, Michigan? The average home had lead levels of 27 with the highest at 158.

Some baby food had levels that were way higher. One report has a brand with 641 parts per billion. Another reportedly using an ingredient almost reaching 900 (886.9 parts per billion).

It’s eye-opening for sure, so we went shopping.

We wanted to see how many products listed in this report are on store shelves, and pretty quickly, we found almost all of them.

Jars, puffs, pouches, rice cereal, and juice, even products labeled “organic,” all reported to Congress as having “significant levels of toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury.”

And that’s just from the four companies that handed over internal documents and test results.

Walmart, Campbell, and Sprout Organic Foods refused, leaving the subcommittee “greatly concerned” they could be hiding “even higher levels of toxic heavy metals” than their competitors.

None of this is easy to swallow, especially for mom of two, Lynnsey Gardner.

“I got the organic, I thought I was good to go. And when I saw this information out now, I’m like questioning everything like what I even gave her.”

Her being Lynnsey Gardner’s first child, Sadie.

You may recognize Gardner. She works behind the scenes as an I-Team producer. But her baby bump wasn’t quite as public as the one you saw here every night on News 12.

News 12 anchor and I-Team reporter Laura Warren just so happens to be Lynnsey’s best friend.

“And we joked, we’re like, wouldn’t be so cool if we got pregnant at the same time? And we got pregnant a month apart, and our babies are six weeks apart,” Gardner said.

Both babies made their debuts during the height of the summer coronavirus spike.

Laura and her husband welcomed baby Addison first.

Weeks later, Gardener’s son Charlie arrived.

And both babies now indulge in home-made baby food.

“I think Lynnsey was a little intimidated by the idea is sounds oh my gosh, you’re making your own baby food. Like there’s some kind of secret sauce to it. But it’s water and a vegetable. And you blend it. That’s it,” Warren said.

It also allows both moms more control, by cutting out preservatives and sometimes things like added sugar, but it’s not just about peace of mind. Both friends say it’s also friendly on the wallet.

“It really is crazy. Cheaper, though. To do it yourself. I wish I had time to fully do it and to do all of our food all the time,” Warren said.

As working moms, both supplement with store-bought food. And as working journalists, both read this report. And both have the same question.

“I don’t know where the veggies that I bought at Kroger came from, necessarily,” Warren said.

“If I make it myself, does that take the heavy metal component out of it? Or is it still there?” Gardner said.

So, I took that question to two experts, Dr. Tyrone Bristol and Dr. Kimberly Baker.

Dr. Bristol is a pediatrician and former director of a lead poisoning center. Plus, he’s at the Medical College of Georgia in a Child Psychiatry Fellowship, so he can speak directly to how toxins listed in this report can affect your child.

“Their development, their growth, their IQ, and then obviously later on how that affects their education, ADHD, behavior problems,” he said.

Dr. Baker is a registered dietician and food safety expert at Clemson University who says, sure, we don’t want our kids to have any toxins, but it’s almost impossible to completely cut out lead, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic because they’re natural.

“I think, though, you just hear arsenic, and you think arsenic is a poison. Why is there poison in my child’s food?” I asked.

“We have to realize, again, back to this, it’s natural, it’s natural in the environment, it really becomes a poison when it’s a toxicity when we have too much in our system,” Dr. Baker said.

Which brings us to soil and groundwater. Some places have higher levels of toxins than others. Farmers who’ve gone organic still use land with a history of pesticides. So, does this mean parents should start a backyard garden?

“I don’t know the, you know, the metal content of the soil at my house,” Dr. Bristol said.

I don’t either and Bristol said most people don’t. Meaning parents could end up having higher levels of toxins.

So where do we turn to next? Both experts say some government regulation or at least a little guidance from the FDA is a good place to start.

“I think that would be wonderful to help us all out. To say, okay, here’s our number that we’re looking for, and what we’re trying to achieve, and that safety level, certainly,” Dr. Baker said.

This brings us back to lead in drinking water.

“If the FDA says five parts per billion is fine for water, this food in some of these levels is 177 times that,” I told Dr. Bristol.

“Right.”

“So how can we have a standard for water? But not for baby food?”

“Yeah, it’s really the... so baby foods are absorbed differently than water,” he said.

On top of that, different babies will absorb food differently, so he says we have to take the numbers in this report with a grain of salt. He says they just don’t tell us enough.

“Because if we knew that 300 parts per billion in of arsenic in cucumbers, will cause you to lose three IQ points. Well, that’s easy. The problem is, it’s multifactorial,” Dr. Bristol said.

So, until we know a good threshold, Dr. Bristol suggests companies put levels on their labels. That way parents can at least compare food and buy the ones with lower levels.

It also holds companies responsible when they select ingredients, encouraging them to buy from growers who are actively working to reduce toxins in their soil and groundwater.

“Like, it’s all so overwhelming as a parent, much less a parent in a pandemic, okay?” Gardner said.

Reducing toxins won’t fully take away all mom stress, but hopefully, it can take at least one thing off a parent’s plate.

“You are just fine. Yeah, see, we got enough to worry about No way. We got to worry about everything. That’s what moms do,” Warren said.

Read the full ECP Baby Food Staff Report

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