Browsed by
Tag: health

Health groups quit baby food industry in effort to limit toxins

Health groups quit baby food industry in effort to limit toxins

Two environmental health groups have resigned from a council meant to lower the heavy metal content of baby foods due to what they say is a lack of cooperation from some of the nation’s biggest baby food brands.

The Baby Food Council was formed in 2019 by Gerber, Earth’s Best, Happy Family Organics and Beech-Nut, as well as the Environmental Defense Fund and Healthy Babies Bright Futures, after years of work and reports from those two environmental health groups drew attention to the high levels of lead, arsenic, mercury and cadmium in baby food. Those heavy metals are neurotoxins that can affect brain development in babies and toddlers.

The council was founded to set voluntary standards to lower concentrations in baby foods and conduct research on farming and production best-practices for reducing heavy metals in ingredients, like sweet potatoes, which often naturally absorb the metals from soil.

“The mission of the Baby Food Council was a shared recognition that there was a problem that needed to be solved,” said Healthy Babies Bright Future’s National Director Charlotte Brody.

When the council was started, its members met monthly, first in person, and then over Zoom during the pandemic. But those relationships soured over this summer when, Brody and EDF saythe baby food companies refused to provide information key to setting such voluntary standards.

Prior to setting limits on heavy metals in baby food, Brody said, the natural first step would be to see what levels of different toxins already exist in finished products. The four baby food companies had previously agreed to provide that information to the council by August, Brody said, but then missed the deadline. One company — Hain Celestial, which owns Earth’s Best — told the council outright that it would not provide the information. The other companies simply never provided the data.

“We needed to know the current range to know the starting line so we could measure progress toward reducing these levels,” Brody said. “And that didn’t seem to me at the beginning to be a high barrier, but then it became one and we never got those numbers.”

Tom Neltner, senior director for safer chemicals at EDF, agreed. He said he spent eight hours a week on work for the Baby Food Council, a time commitment that he found “hard to justify” when the companies stopped cooperating.

“It’s really hard to get continuous improvement if you don’t have a baseline and if you don’t know where you are at,” he said. “It’s essential to a standard and the companies were just unwilling or unable to share that data.”

Neltner noted that the council had planned to use that baseline data not only as a baseline to track companies’ progress on lowering heavy metals in baby foods and to set a new voluntary standard, but also for research into the production line. The council had partnered with researchers at multiple universities, including Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who could have dug into the data to compare differences in companies’ supply chains and farming practices used by suppliers to see if any differences in techniques led to lower levels of neurotoxins in the final products.

“It wasn’t going to just be the benchmark for the standard but also looking at if we wash squash this way or peel carrots that way, does that change the heavy metals content,” he said. “We would have been able to identify opportunities.”

In a statement, a Gerber spokesperson said the company “disagrees with any characterization that we are not committed to progress on this very important issue.” They did not respond to specific questions about why Gerber did not share data on heavy metal contents of its products with the council, but the spokesperson said, “Gerber values the purpose of the Baby Food Council as it offered the best opportunity to work with multiple stakeholders on the shared mission of lowering the presence of heavy metals in baby food.”

Beech-Nut also said it “remains fully committed to working with the remaining members of the Baby Food Council and other stakeholders to further advance next generation quality and safety initiatives.”

But both Beech-Nut and Gerber also implied that they were no longer focused on the effort since the Food and Drug Administration announced a new action plan this spring, dubbed “Closer to Zero,” promising to review existing guidance on arsenic in baby foods and set new guidelines for the other three heavy metals.

“Gerber’s focus has shifted, as it must, from a voluntary standard to supporting the FDA to meet its objectives related to heavy metals,” the spokesperson said.

“With the commitment of the FDA to establish its ‘Closer to Zero’ action plan, the development of a separate, voluntary baby food standard is no longer appropriate,” Beech-Nut said.

Earth’s Best and Happy Family Organics did not respond to requests for comment.

FDA’s “Closer to Zero” plan has been roundly criticized for including only vague timelines for regulatory actions. For example, guidance on new lead levels in baby foods could be finalized in 2022 and also in “2024 and beyond.” The plan does not include any timelines to finalize standards for other heavy metals in baby foods.

That plan was released after a House Oversight and Reform Committee report released last winter found high levels of heavy metals in baby foods produced by all four members of the Baby Food Council , making national headlines. FDA currently only has one standard for any heavy metals in any baby foods — a 100 parts per billion limit on arsenic in baby rice cereal. But an E&E News investigation found that even those limits were set based on “feasibility” for companies rather than children’s health (Greenwire, April 8).

The insufficiency of FDA’s Closer to Zero plan is one reason 23 attorneys general have petitioned the agency to pose interim limits on inorganic arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury in all baby foods and to propose stricter regulations on the amount of arsenic in baby rice cereal, among other things.

To Brody, FDA’s lack of a track record on heavy metals in baby foods is the reason the council’s work was so critical.

“To just go back to doing what is legal is not good enough for babies,” she said.

Though she had high hopes for the council when the effort began three years ago, she said she now feels like Healthy Babies Bright Futures was used by the companies for “green washing.”

“When we were going to measure our progress through a standard, it wasn’t just talk, it was action, and without a standard that measures if we are actually doing what we say, then it’s just talk,” Brody said.

Neltner isn’t quite as critical. He noted that, prior to EDF and Healthy Babies Bright Futures leaving the council, it had been able to compile a list of 13 laboratories that had the right skills and equipment to measure heavy metals in baby food. He said he is hopeful EDF will be able to continue working with individual companies at least on researching the root of heavy metals in the supply chain once the dust settles.


Ariel Wittenberg at Greenwire/E&E News

Baby Poop Is Loaded With Microplastics

Baby Poop Is Loaded With Microplastics

An alarming new study finds that infant feces contain 10 times more polyethylene terephthalate (aka polyester) than an adult’s.

Whenever a plastic bag or bottle degrades, it breaks into ever smaller pieces that work their way into nooks in the environment. When you wash synthetic fabrics, tiny plastic fibers break loose and flow out to sea. When you drive, plastic bits fly off your tires and brakes. That’s why literally everywhere scientists look, they’re finding microplastics—specks of synthetic material that measure less than 5 millimeters long. They’re on the most remote mountaintops and in the deepest oceans. They’re blowing vast distances in the wind to sully once pristine regions like the Arctic. In 11 protected areas in the western US, the equivalent of 120 million ground-up plastic bottles are falling out of the sky each year.

And now, microplastics are coming out of babies. In a pilot study published today, scientists describe sifting through infants’ dirty diapers and finding an average of 36,000 nanograms of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) per gram of feces, 10 times the amount they found in adult feces. They even found it in newborns’ first feces. PET is an extremely common polymer that’s known as polyester when it’s used in clothing, and it is also used to make plastic bottles. The finding comes a year after another team of researchers calculated that preparing hot formula in plastic bottles severely erodes the material, which could dose babies with several million microplastic particles a day, and perhaps nearly a billion a year. 

Although adults are bigger, scientists think that in some ways infants have more exposure. In addition to drinking from bottles, babies could be ingesting microplastics in a dizzying number of ways. They have a habit of putting everything in their mouths—plastic toys of all kinds, but they’ll also chew on fabrics. (Microplastics that shed from synthetic textiles are known more specifically as microfibers, but they’re plastic all the same.) Babies’ foods are wrapped in single-use plastics. Children drink from plastic sippy cups and eat off plastic plates. The carpets they crawl on are often made of polyester. Even hardwood floors are coated in polymers that shed microplastics. Any of this could generate tiny particles that children breathe or swallow. 

Small Plastic pellets on the finger

Indoor dust is also emerging as a major route of microplastic exposure, especially for infants. (In general, indoor air is absolutely lousy with them; each year you could be inhaling tens of thousands of particles.) Several studies of indoor spaces have shown that each day in a typical household, 10,000 microfibers might land on a single square meter of floor, having flown off of clothing, couches, and bed sheets. Infants spend a significant amount of their time crawling through the stuff, agitating the settled fibers and kicking them up into the air. 

“Unfortunately, with the modern lifestyle, babies are exposed to so many different things for which we don’t know what kind of effect they can have later in their life,” says Kurunthachalam Kannan, an environmental health scientist at New York University School of Medicine and coauthor of the new paper, which appears in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters

The researchers did their tally by collecting dirty diapers from six 1-year-olds and running the feces through a filter to collect the microplastics. They did the same with three samples of meconium—a newborn’s first feces—and stool samples from 10 adults. In addition to analyzing the samples for PET, they also looked for polycarbonate plastic, which is used as a lightweight alternative to glass, for instance in eyeglass lenses. To make sure that they only counted the microplastics that came from the infants’ guts, and not from their diapers, they ruled out the plastic that the diapers were made of: polypropylene, a polymer that’s distinct from polycarbonate and PET.

All told, PET concentrations were 10 times higher in infants than in adults, while polycarbonate levels were more even between the two groups. The researchers found smaller amounts of both polymers in the meconium, suggesting that babies are born with plastics already in their systems. This echoes previous studies that have found microplastics in human placentas and meconium.

What this all means for human health—and, more urgently, for infant health—scientists are now racing to find out. Different varieties of plastic can contain any of at least 10,000 different chemicals, a quarter of which are of concern for people, according to a recent study from researchers at ​​ETH Zürich in Switzerland. These additives serve all kinds of plastic-making purposes, like providing flexibility, extra strength, or protection from UV bombardment, which degrades the material. Microplastics may contain heavy metals like lead, but they also tend to accumulate heavy metals and other pollutants as they tumble through the environment. They also readily grow a microbial community of viruses, bacteria, and fungi, many of which are human pathogens.

Of particular concern are a class of chemicals called endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, which disrupt hormones and have been connected to reproductive, neurological, and metabolic problems, for instance increased obesity. The infamous plastic ingredient bisphenol A, or BPA, is one such EDC that has been linked to various cancers

“We should be concerned because the EDCs in microplastics have been shown to be linked with several adverse outcomes in human and animal studies,” says Jodi Flaws, a reproductive toxicologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who led a 2020 study from the Endocrine Society on plastics. (She wasn’t involved in this new research.) “Some of the microplastics contain chemicals that can interfere with the normal function of the endocrine system.” 

Infants are especially vulnerable to EDCs, since the development of their bodies depends on a healthy endocrine system. “I strongly believe that these chemicals do affect early life stages,” says Kannan. “That’s a vulnerable period.”

This new research adds to a growing body of evidence that babies are highly exposed to microplastic. “This is a very interesting paper with some very worrying numbers,” says University of Strathclyde microplastic researcher Deonie Allen, who wasn’t involved in the study. “We need to look at everything a child is exposed to, not just their bottles and toys.”

Since infants are passing microplastics in their feces, that means the gut could be absorbing some of the particles, like it would absorb nutrients from food. This is known as translocation: Particularly small particles might pass through the gut wall and end up in other organs, including the brain. Researchers have actually demonstrated this in carp by feeding them plastic particles, which translocated through the gut and worked their way to the head, where they caused brain damage that manifested as behavioral problems: Compared to control fish, the individuals with plastic particles in their brains were less active and ate more slowly.

But that was done with very high concentrations of particles, and in an entirely different species. While scientists know that EDCs are bad news, they don’t yet know what level of microplastic exposure it would take to cause problems in the human body. “We need many more studies to confirm the doses and types of chemicals in microplastics that lead to adverse outcomes,” says Flaws.

In the meantime, microplastics researchers say you can limit children’s contact with particles. Do not prepare infant formula with hot water in a plastic bottle—use a glass bottle and transfer it over to the plastic one once the liquid reaches room temperature. Vacuum and sweep to keep floors clear of microfibers. Avoid plastic wrappers and containers when possible. Microplastics have contaminated every aspect of our lives, so while you’ll never get rid of them, you can at least reduce your family’s exposure.


Matt Simon at Wired