Today’s first cut is “All Shall Be Well” from the album “The Iron Man” by Pete Townshend. Initially was going to select “I Eat Heavy Metal” from the album as it featured John Lee Hooker and the name seemed almost too perfect. The album is a musical, and while not a classic, makes for a good listen.
A recent staff report from the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy entitled “Baby Foods are Tainted with Dangerous Levels of Arsenic, Lead, Cadmium, and Mercury” has caused anxiety for many a parent of infants. This is not at all surprising based on the title alone, but is it time to chuck all the jarred food you have in your house in favor of your favorite machine with a spinning blade and puree catching receptacle? What if it were zircon encrusted? Today, I will attempt to cover what the report states and put it in some form of context for you along with giving you some general advice as to how to deal with the situation.
Of note, the report did not have anything to do with trying to capture and capitalize on the finding of extremely valuable planetoids made of heavy metal. Nor was it another attempt to censor music lyrics. Brief COVID updates at the end of the blog for those of you with no interest in potentially poisoned baby food.
What the Report Says
The report states that baby foods are tainted with dangerous levels of inorganic arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury. It further states that the companies that produce these baby foods failed to protect consumers through self regulation. Specifically, the subcommittee reports that the companies internal standards permit dangerously high amounts of heavy metals, and that even when finding levels exceeding these cutoffs, the companies continued to sell product. Lastly the report addresses the methodology of testing, and concludes that it intentionally masks the severity of the concern. The nutshell version of the report can be found on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s website. The full report can be found here.
The concerns raised by the report are completely valid and should be taken very seriously by all. What I am about to point out is not in any way to distract you from the core issue nor detract from what should be the fundamental the message of the report.
When writing about scientific topics, and toxic levels of metals in food is one such topic, the expectation is to present the data and interpret it in an unbiased manner. The report itself has a bit of infomercial to it, and thus immediately raises my antennae for biased reporting. In particular, the referencing of “secret slide presentations” in seven separate areas of the report (which is 59 pages long) is peculiar language for a scientific presentation at best. Making references in six places in the report to Trump or Trump Administration failures is also grossly inappropriate for a report on such an important topic. Whether any of the statements are accurate or not is irrelevant for the report and only serves to lead to questioning the validity of the data presented on partisan grounds. This is just another example of our government’s inability to get out of its own way on literally every topic of importance.
Again, because this topic is truly important, let us just assume the findings themselves are accurate and move forward in a manner more respectful to science.
A little love for Freddie Mercury. This cut from Queen is entitled “Hammer to Fall” and is from their legendary set at Live Aid.
Why the Concern? Does Heavy Metal Poisoning Lead to Head Banging?
No, head banging is normal behavior in the majority of cases, though the underlying reasons differ between young children and teenage children. Heavy metal exposure though environmental exposure (including foods) is a well known cause of poor cognitive outcomes in both children AND adults. This was the primary focus of the Report which opens with the phrase “Children’s exposure to toxic heavy metals causes permanent decreases in IQ..…” Perhaps it is worth mentioning (the subcommittee did not) that exposure to toxic heavy metals is also known to cause cancer, kidney damage, thyroid damage, weaken bones, blood disorders, reproductive issues, and to be deferential to the most recent Hallmark holiday, heart damage? I thought so. This is not new knowledge. There are many reviews on the topic, here is one from a few years ago.
Warning…..The above Monty Python clip contains some questionable language. And a lot of projectile vomiting. If that is likely to lead to you have a “reversal of fortune,” do not watch the clip. If you enjoy watching folks vomit, try this clip from Tosh.0.
How Much is Too Much? Is it OK if it’s Wafer-Thin?
So how much is too much? This is the million dollar question for the day. How should we define “too much”? Is it any exposure, as there is no reason to ingest any mercury for example? Should we base it on data showing that less than some specified amount appears to cause no significant damage? Most folks are fine with the second method. More on this in a bit.
**Fun fact from the report: every IQ point lost costs you $18,000 in lifetime earning capacity, and that current exposures in children (not only from food) are costing kids 1.57 IQ points.
What Did the Committee Recommend Based on Their Findings?
There is nothing shocking in recommendation made by the subcommittee in their report. What was shocking however is that the recommendations had not already been addressed. The subcommittee recommended that baby food manufacturers be required to test their finished products for toxic heavy metals and place the levels of such on their labs. Furthermore, they recommended that the manufacturers should voluntarily phase out ingredients and/or products of concern along with the FDA should setting standards for maximum levels of heavy metals. Lastly, the committee recommended “parental vigilance.”
Sounds quite reasonable with the exception of the “parental vigilance” aspect. I was actually somewhat dumbfounded to find that there are minimal products monitored in a defined manner by the FDA. There is, to their credit evidence that they have been working towards such. On the FDA website I was able to find that they address heavy metals as it pertains to food. There also are pages devoted to the specific regulations for arsenic, lead, and mercury levels in food. I could not find specific regulations for many other toxic heavy metals, such as cadmium. Again though, it does appear that the FDA is attempting to address them and is collecting the data required to make appropriate decisions. One such project is the Total Diet Study. Other projects are examining what is present in the containers and utensils we use for food preparation and consumption.
What did I take exception to in the “parental vigilance” section? It basically stated that they would provide the parents the data and let them decide. We do not permit parents to figure out how much alcohol and cigarettes to give their children, why should we let them poison their children with tainted food?
A little George Harrison for you. From his double album All Things Must Pass, “Apple Scruffs” was selected as apples and apple juice have been found to have elevated levels of arsenic in them.
Some Basic Questions not Addressed in the Study
First, why are we only talking jarred baby food? How about not eating poisoned food? Are you now a bit curious as to how much heavy metal you are ingesting on a daily basis?
Second, is it the manufacturing of the baby food that is the issue or is it the food itself? I suspect the answer to this is a little of both, but I would not at all be surprised if the larger issue at the end of the day is that we have screwed up our soil with pollutants. A quick Medline search suggests that this may be the case. Like bread, leafy vegetable, and pasta? How about some cadmium with that? While I could not find a similar study in the US quickly, studies in China have shown significant pollution in the soil near urban areas that would be expected to enter the food chain. And before you go nuts and decide to simply grow everything yourself, consider your own landscape. This study on community gardens in the United States found significant heavy metal levels.
Third, and without getting political here in a specific sense, why is it that the issue has been known for so long and has not already been addressed. This is a multi-administrational failure that by definition means members of all parties have dropped the ball. What needs to be done to have the FDA run more effectively to mitigate these types of concerns for all? One suggestion might be to get the various government agencies to communicate better. While I could not find data or guidelines on the FDA site for toxic levels of most heavy metals, the Department of Agriculture does appear to have such.
You get a bonus here! Some financial advice too! It’s all about risk management.
First, there are some risks that are extreme and not worth taking. While awesome to watch, and admirable in some way I guess, rock climbing in the manner seen in Free Solo is in that category of risk not worth taking for the majority of us. With the general populations physical skill set, it would result in a 4th human near-extinction event. For finance, this means not buying a stock because its ticker symbol is the same as your initials (Genoway in my case – Yahoo Finance does not even list what they do!). As this pertains to foods, there are some not worth ingesting. Methanol falls in this category as I learned from Kitty Dukakis while I was in high school.
Second, diversification is your best bet. If building a portfolio it is best to diversify. It prevents any one investment from leading you to catastrophe. Same with foods. Any one food may have higher levels of some toxin or another, but is less likely for all foods to have higher levels of the same toxin. Your best bet with diet is to eat a little of everything. If you eat a limited diet, you are at higher risk of encountering toxic levels of something in your food. Kinda like Super Size Me, only different. Addressing the earlier question of do you need to stop buying jarred food, the answer is no. At this time I could not accurately tell you that the manufacturing process is to blame as opposed to food chain itself. I also could not tell you exactly which foods are the highest risk aside from the most commonly implicated rice. Buying organic will not mitigate the risk as many of the brands in the study were organic for those questioning such.
Third, be aware of where you discard your electronics and batteries. Some sites to assist you.
Some Funkadelic to end this weeks blog. Vital Juices to continue with the foodie theme today.
A Very Brief COVID Update
The Basic Numbers
Locally and nationally, the number of cases continues to lessen. We are finally back under 100,000 new cases per day nationally. This was last the case in October. Hospitalization rates are also getting much lower. These are both very nice things to see. We are still witnessing more than 20,000 deaths per week nationally. Unless something has fundamentally changed, it is expected that these numbers should improve over the next couple of weeks as well.
While these numbers are reassuring, especially in light of an increasingly vaccinated population, please do not view this as carte blanche to cease taking precautions. Everything is a matter of perspective, and we have become a bit numb at this point to the burden of disease. There are still more than double the number of folks contracting COVID daily as when compared to the numbers over the summer. There are five fold the number of deaths compared to the same time period as well. So while we are better than the peak we just endured, we are still not out of this situation.
Supply of COVID vaccines remains limited. A third COVID vaccine, made by Johnson and Johnson, is soon to come before the FDA for approval under emergency authorization. Hopefully it will alleviate some of the bottleneck. In the meantime, our leadership continues to demonstrate some poor judgement. In particular, they continue to expand the eligibility criteria for receiving the vaccine. You cannot do that when there is lack of supply for what you have already made eligible. Expanded eligibility is decreasing the ability for the highest at risk in our population to receive the vaccine. Elderly folks who are most at risk are also least likely to be tech savvy and able to secure appointments. They are increasingly competing with younger folks to get their vaccine and losing that battle. Why is it so hard to take care of your highest risk and progressively move along based on actually accomplishing the task at hand? Instead of 7 million eligible for the 250,000 doses each week, you decide to have 10 million fighting over them? Maybe common core math will help the next generation make better decisions.
Post authored by Jason Halegoua PhD, MD, MBA, FAAP. Jason is the founder of Peds First Pediatrics in 2009, and has been a practicing general pediatrician since completing residency at Schneider Children’s Hospital in 2004. In addition to earning his medical degree from the Medical College of Pennsylvania, Jason earned a PhD in Molecular Pathobiology for his work contributing to the understanding of the genetic regulation of immune responses to murine leukemia viruses from Hahnemann University in Philadelphia and an MBA in Finance from Hofstra University.