Parents Are Unwittingly Poisoning Their Babies
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Parents Are Unwittingly Poisoning Their Babies

And Trump’s FDA Is OK with It, as the Agency Sets ‘Voluntary’ Limits on Arsenic in Rice-Based Baby Foods

Sarah Okeson

Sarah Okeson

Deb Discenza’s daughter was born 10 weeks premature, weighing just under 3 pounds, and had trouble keeping anything down.

Discenza and her husband Gregg would feed her breast milk with formula added for extra calories plus rice cereal to thicken the liquid enough so Becky wouldn’t vomit it.

“It allowed my daughter to eat and keep the food down and gain weight,” Discenza said.

Meanwhile, however, the Discenzas were slowly poisoning their baby girl with minute amounts of deadly arsenic.

Rice cereal is a common first solid food for infants and is frequently used as a thickener for feeding premature babies who may have trouble swallowing or with reflux. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2016 found an estimated 80% of infants were introduced to rice cereal in the first year of life. Most started at 4 to 6 months. Infants who eat rice cereal have 3.3 times more arsenic in their urine than infants with a rice-free diet.

Trump’s Food and Drug Administration recently set voluntary limits of 100 parts per billion for inorganic arsenic, the more toxic form of arsenic, in rice cereal for babies. But some advocates for children say the limits aren’t strict enough. The FDA did not set any limits for how much arsenic can be in other types of baby food.

Jaydee Hanson, policy director for the Center for Food Safety, said the new voluntary limit is “better than nothing but not much more than nothing.”

ACTION BOX/What You Can Do About It

Comment by mailing Dockets Management Staff (HFA-305), Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, Room 1061, Rockville, Md. 20852. Include the Docket No. FDA-2016-D-1099 for “Inorganic Arsenic in Rice Cereals for Infants: Action Level; Guidance for Industry.”

Contact the Center for Food Safety at [email protected]


Our government limited the amount of arsenic, a poison associated with cancer and heart disease, in drinking water decades ago. Yet manufacturers of baby food have been able to sell parents children’s foods that contain this poison.

Deb Discenza feeding her daughter Becky.

Arsenic, an element, is naturally found in water and soil. Rice appears to accumulate arsenic more than other grains such as wheat or barley, and American rice has higher arsenic levels than rice grown in Europe, India or Bangladesh. Most of the rice grown in the United States is grown in the South where cotton was treated with arsenical pesticides for decades to combat boll weevils.

Under the Food Quality Protection Act, signed by then President Bill Clinton in 1996, the EPA is required to consider the cumulative risks for pesticides from food, drinking water and residential exposure, but the FDA had no such requirement when setting the voluntary limit for arsenic in rice cereal.

An FDA spokesperson did not have a response Wednesday for questions by about the voluntary limit.

The FDA voluntary limit for arsenic in rice cereal is 10 times larger than what the EPA allows in our nation’s drinking water. The FDA has proposed a voluntary limit for arsenic in apple juice that is also a tenth of its voluntary limits for rice cereal.

A 2016 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that rice cereal could account for more than half of inorganic arsenic exposure for babies in the United States if they eat it each day. Healthy Babies Bright Futures, an alliance of nonprofits and scientists, found six times more arsenic in infant rice cereal than other cereals tested on average. Brands that were tested were Gerber, Beech-Nut, BioKinetics, HappyBABY, Earth’s Best and Healthy Times.

The USA Rice Federation, which spent $267,951 on federal lobbying in 2019, said the FDA assumption about the risk at the exposure levels in the United States was not supported by a review of the scientific literature.

Arsenic has been linked to brain-development issues in children, including slower motor function, diminished memory and decreased IQs. Children, infants and the elderly are among those most vulnerable to being harmed by arsenic. The poison increases the risk of bladder and lung cancers.

Arsenic also could interfere with children’s ability to survive viruses such as the coronavirus. A 2009 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found arsenic in drinking water hampered the ability to develop immunity to the H1N1 (swine flu) virus.

The Discenzas’ daughter, Becky, is now 17. She is a junior in high school in northern Virginia and also takes college classes. She likes to draw and is interested in being in the movies or a video game designer.

Deb Discenza, like many new parents, didn’t know about the possible hazards of rice cereal when her daughter was small and worries about the possible impact on her child’s lungs.

“The last thing you want to do is poison these babies,” she said.


September 11, 2020