Baby Formula May Increase Arsenic Exposure For Infants: Study

Babies fed infant formula have much higher levels of arsenic in their bodies than infants who are breastfed, according to the results of a new study. 

Research published this week in the medical journal Environmental Health Perspectives indicates that arsenic levels in the urine of babies who were fed formula were more than seven times higher than infants who were only breastfed.

The study focused on data from the New Hampshire Birth Cohort Study (NHBCS), measuring arsenic in the home tap water of the infants in the study. It also tested the urine from the 72 participating infants who were six weeks old. The researchers also tested the breast milk of the mothers.

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Overall, urinary arsenic concentrations are typically low. However, the study found that concentrations in infants fed formula exclusively were much higher than that of infants who were fed both formula and breast milk. The infants fed exclusively breastfed had the lowest concentrations of arsenic.

The average daily arsenic intake of formula fed infants was 5.5 times higher than that of breastfed infants, and their urinary concentrations were 7.5 times higher.

The study also found arsenic levels in the tap water tested far exceeded the amount of arsenic found in the powdered formula, but both contributed to arsenic exposure. This means the water alone can be a source of arsenic exposure.

Arsenic occurs naturally in the environment and is found in bedrock. It often contaminates well water. Study authors urge people to have their well water tested for arsenic, especially those in rural areas.

In New Hampshire, where the study was conducted, private wells supply water to 40 percent of the population. Approximately one in 10 wells in the state have arsenic levels higher than 10 micrograms per liter, the amount allowable in public drinking water.

While study authors recommend reducing arsenic levels; the best bet would be to breastfeed infants. For those that can’t, they recommend using filtered or bottled water instead. Past studies have show arsenic levels in breast milk are fairly low, even in areas with high levels of arsenic in the drinking water.

Arsenic is a chemical element that comes in both organic and inorganic forms. Arsenic poisoning can cause vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, dehydration, delirium, cardiac problems, shock and death. Long-term exposure can cause skin discoloration, swelling, impaired liver and kidney function and sensory and motor nerve defects.

Researchers say about 70% of the arsenic exposure in the study came from the formula powder, which contains low levels of naturally occurring arsenic.

They cannot say for sure whether the infants exposed to higher levels of arsenic will experience greater negative health side effects in the future. They emphasize more research is needed and the infants will need to be followed up with as they get older to see if there are any further associations.

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