High levels of arsenic found in baby formulas – but breastfeeding protects infants from exposure to arsenic


Arsenic is a poisonous element with multiple adverse effects on human bodies:  “Arsenic is a carcinogen that can also affect the cardiac, respiratory, neurological and immune systems. Children have higher dietary arsenic exposure than adults owing to their more restricted diets and greater intake per unit body mass.” Contribution of breast milk and formula to arsenic exposure during the first year of life in a US prospective cohort.

This research in the USA was published in 2016 and compared the contribution to arsenic exposure of formula feeding and breastfeeding. Although the researchers noted that population-wide arsenic exposures measured at 4, 8 and 12 months of age were relatively low, formula-fed infants had higher exposures: “At all three time points, exclusively formula-fed infants had geometric mean arsenic exposures ~ 8 times higher than exclusively breastfed infants owing to arsenic in both tap water and formula powder.” 

Two studies in the news in 2015 reported high levels of arsenic in both wines and baby formulas in the USA:  Arsenic Content in American Wine  and  Arsenic Consumption in the United States.   The news report on these 2 studies ‘Wine, infant formula heavy on the arsenic, study finds’ explains “Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that is toxic to humans in some forms, and can cause skin, lung, and bladder cancers, among other diseases. As rain, rivers, or winds erode rocks that contain arsenic, it leaches into water and soil. From there, the toxic metalloid can work its way into the food chain.” The author of the 2 studies cited in the news report estimated that some infants eating large amounts of certain formulas may be getting more than 10 times the daily maximum dose of arsenic.

Wine is of course only a small source of arsenic in an adult diet, even for heavy drinkers. But for infants and young children who are not breastfed the picture is quite different. Formulas are the sole source of food for infants and an important part of the diet for young children.  The author of the two arsenic studies explains that infants consuming formula containing contaminated organic brown rice syrup are the most exposed group among children.” See Arsenic Consumption in the United States


Sweetening formulas: the problem with organic brown rice syrup

Formulas are heavily sweetened and organic brown rice syrup is used in some formulas as an alternative to high-fructose corn syrup. The 2012 study Arsenic, Organic Foods, and Brown Rice Syrup examined levels of arsenic in 15 formulas, all of which contained organic brown rice syrup as a sweetener. Findings confirmed earlier data showing that higher arsenic levels in formulas are a source of concern, given that these formulas could be “the sole source of sustenance for an individual over a critical period of development.”  The researchers conclude “that there is an urgent need for regulatory limits on arsenic in food.”

Although the dangerous pesticides used to cultivate soy for soy formulas contain high levels of arsenic, organic brown rice is supposedly free of pesticides. The problem arises in regions where organic brown rice is cultivated on arsenic-rich soils, and irrigated using arsenic-rich ground water. The arsenic thus comes from the soil itself, or from the ground water used to irrigate rice.


Arsenic contamination of tap water used to prepare formula

There is a double risk of arsenic exposure arising both from the arsenic contamination of formulas and the water used to prepare formula feeds.  Arsenic can leach from underlying rocks that surround the aquifers and then contaminates wells and water tables. The study on Contamination of drinking-water by arsenic in Bangladesh:  a public health emergency explains: “The discovery of arsenic contamination of ground water in many nations, including Argentina, Chile, China, India, Mexico, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States and now, Bangladesh, shows that this is a global problem. All groundwater sources used for drinking water should be tested for arsenic.”


Given the scale of the problem of water contamination, IBFAN emphasizes that water sources used to prepare formulas for feeding infants and young children must also be tested for arsenic levels. 


Breastfeeding protects infants from exposure to arsenic


Most important is the fact that breastfeeding may protect babies from arsenic exposure. 

The study Breast-feeding protects against arsenic exposure in Bangladeshi infants concludes : « Very little arsenic is excreted in breastmilk, even in women with high exposure from drinking water. Thus, exclusive breastfeeding protects the infant from exposure to arsenic. »

More recent research in the USA was published in May 2015 Estimated Exposure to Arsenic in Breastfed and Formula-fed Infants in a United States Cohort. The authors’ findings suggest that “breastfed infants have lower arsenic exposure than formula-fed infants, and that both formula powder and drinking water can be sources of exposure for U.S. infants. »

This is one more cogent reason to protect, promote and support optimal breastfeeding.