Conservation Minnesota

What is Arsenic Doing in Baby Cereal?

A new report Arsenic in 9 Brands of Infant Cereal out today highlights the high levels of arsenic in infant rice cereal. Many parents choose rice cereal as one of baby’s first solid foods, unknowingly exposing vulnerable babies to a toxic chemical that affects brain development and is linked to cancer.

Healthy Babies Bright Futures tested 105 infant cereals for levels of arsenic, covering a wide range of brands and a variety of grains such as rice, brown rice, oats, quinoa, barley, corn, wheat, as well as mixed grain. Brands tested included six Gerber, Earth’s Best and HappyBABY products that I purchased at a Minnesota Target store. The testing found that rice cereals had on average six times more arsenic that multi-grain or other single grain cereals. Even though cereal companies have reduced the levels of arsenic in their cereal over the last four years, from 103 parts per billion (PPB) to 85 PPB, these levels are not health protective.

You might be wondering why there’s arsenic in rice cereal.  Rice uptakes ten times more arsenic from the soil compared with other grains. Arsenic is naturally occurring, but soil where arsenic-containing pesticides had previously been used have much higher levels. Arsenic not only causes cancer, but it poses a risk to developing brains, including reduction in IQ. The report notes that “arsenic in infant rice cereal and other rice-based foods accounts for an estimated loss of up to 9.2 million IQ points among U.S. children ages 0-6.” Reduced IQ has lifelong impacts on individuals and society at large and an analysis by Abt Associates estimates impacts for the country at $12-18 billion a year in lost wages.

While rice cereal is the top dietary source of arsenic for babies under age one, babies who live in areas with high levels of arsenic in drinking water may be getting a double dose of arsenic that could put their health and development at risk. The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) estimates that 10 percent of all wells in Minnesota have natural arsenic levels at or above 10 micrograms per liter, which is the federal drinking water standard for arsenic, and “some groundwater in Minnesota has natural arsenic levels as high as 150 micrograms per liter.” MDH advises families with private wells to have their water tested for arsenic and if levels exceed 10 micrograms per liter, to install a water filtration system.

While it’s important to be aware of all potential sources of arsenic exposure, reducing babies’ exposure to this toxic element in cereal is something that we must tackle on multiple levels. Arsenic in rice may be a new problem to many parents and consumers, but it’s one that is solvable.

  • Federal action. There is no federal standard for arsenic in infant cereal, so the FDA should take immediate steps to set an enforceable, health-based standard that considers IQ loss as well as other potential health impacts.
  • Retailer action. Retailers that sell baby cereals can educate consumers about the concerns with arsenic in rice cereal and the availability of safer foods and make low-arsenic products more visible on store shelves than rice-only cereals.
  • Cereal manufacturer action. Cereal companies should take additional steps to reduce arsenic in their cereal products, including sourcing rice from fields with lower levels of arsenic in soil, growing strains that uptake less arsenic, blending into multi-grain products and more. Urge Gerber to take action.
  • Parent action. You can significantly reduce your baby’s exposure to arsenic in cereal by avoiding single grain rice cereal, instead choosing other grains or multi-grain products. If your family eats rice, you can cook it in extra water and pour it off before eating or choose low arsenic basmati rice grown in California, India or Pakistan. See 8 Simple Ways to Protect Your Family from Arsenic Contamination in Rice and Other Foods.

Our actions today can make arsenic in infant cereal a problem of the past!

About Kathleen Schuler

Kathleen Schuler
Kathleen Schuler manages the Healthy Kids and Families program. With degrees in sociology and public health, Kathleen is perfectly situated to serve as the Co-Director of the Healthy Legacy coalition, which is a statewide network of advocacy organizations working to eliminate toxic chemicals from common consumer products.
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