Water is to blame for perchlorate in infant formula, says industry

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Infant formula

Two brands of infant formula – which make up almost 90 percent of the US market – were found to have the highest levels of contamination with the chemical perchlorate by a recent government study, but the industry has dismissed the findings on the basis that detected levels were too low to do any harm.

The study, published last month in The Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology​, found that all 15 infant formula brands tested contained some levels of perchlorate, a chemical used in the production of jet fuel.

To read about the key findings of the study, conducted by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), click here​.

Brands most affected

The study had found that the highest levels of perchlorate were present in two brands of infant formula made from cow’s milk and containing lactose. These contained a perchlorate concentration of 3.86 and 3.44 parts per billion (ppb), compared to the average perchlorate concentration of milk-based formula of 1.72 ppb.

The researchers would not identify the brands, but said that they made up 87 percent of the US powdered infant formula market in 2000, as determined by the US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (USDA/ERS).

The ERS report cited identifies the two most popular infant formula brands in 2000 as ones produced by Mead Johnson, owned by Bristol-Myers (52 percent market share) and Ross Labs, owned by Abbott Laboratories ( 35 percent share). To access the report, click here​.

Water is to blame, says industry

However, the infant formula industry has countered that the levels of perchlorate detected “are far below”​ the safe reference values set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of 0.7μg/kg body weight per day. IFC said that the average level of perchlorate in milk-based infant formula, as tested in the CDC study, remains more than eight times lower than the level determined by the EPA to be safe in drinking water (15 ppb).

“Perchlorate is not an ingredient in infant formula. Perchlorate can be present in the environment, drinking water, and the food supply chain, and thus trace levels may be found in infant formula and breast milk. The body of scientific evidence indicates that these trace levels do not pose a health risk,”​ said the International Formula Council (IFC), an association of formula manufacturers and marketers including Mead and Abbott.

The group highlighted that the reason infants may be at risk for exceeding the daily Reference Dose (RfD) of the chemical is because the water that is used to reconstitute powdered infant formula could contain perchlorate, thereby increasing potential contamination levels.

“Using the estimates for exposure described in the CDC study, infants who consume formula containing these average levels and prepared with perchlorate-free water would not exceed the RfD,”​ IFC told NutraIngredients-USA.com.

It added that parents concerned with perchlorate levels in the water supply should use bottled water.

Exposure scenarios and conservative estimates

The researchers responded to an inquiry from this publication, explaining that the study compares measured levels of perchlorates and used those measurements, as well as estimates of baby weight at different ages and estimates of the amount of formula typically consumed, to determine several hypothetical exposure scenarios involving formula mixed with drinking water containing perchlorate.

“For each hypothetical situation CDC calculated how much perchlorate would need to be in water to cause the mixed formula to exceed the US Environmental Protection Agency's Perchlorate Reference Dose (RfD),” ​they said.

“The RfD is EPA's conservative estimate of the highest daily dose of perchlorate that sensitive persons can receive over a lifetime without experiencing an adverse effect. The RfD does not indicate the maximum safe dose.”

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