By: Jordan Berns

New mothers are often told to take vitamins and supplements while pregnant and breastfeeding to protect their health and make their breast milk as nutritious as possible. However, sometimes the products that are supposed to be full of nutrients, are actually full of toxins. Two mainstream items marketed to mothers on Amazon were found to contain dangerous levels of arsenic, an element that can cause illness or even death.

Dr. Stephanie Canale, co-founder of Lactation Lab, and her team tested 9 commonly used vitamins and 16 lactation supplements popular with breastfeeding mothers. The experiment intended to find the hidden killer: were any of these products harboring high levels of toxic heavy metals? And if they are, were babies the unintended causality?

Dr. Canale used a plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) to root out hidden toxins. If there were more than 0.001 µg/L (micrograms per liter) of a heavy metal, her team of scientists would be the first to know! At UCLA’s UC Center for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology, the scientists looked for the presence of heavy metals like arsenic, lead, mercury, and cadmium in nutritional products. When consumed by mothers, noxious elements can be absorbed by breast milk and harm nursing infants, as revealed by supporting studies from 2009 and 2012. These metals can damage babies’ immune, nervous, respiratory, and endocrine systems. Lead, mercury, and cadmium were not found in detectable levels in the examined Amazon products, but arsenic was.

Arsenic is the secret ingredient in two unsuspecting Amazon purchases.

While arsenic can certainly pose a threat to adults, it can be even deadlier to infants. A 2018 experiment proved that 50% of babies whose mothers were exposed to arsenic were unfortunately exposed to this element as well. What might be a tiny sample of arsenic to adults, is a much larger amount to babies who have less varied diets and consume more nutrients per unit of body mass than their parents. Additionally, babies have difficulty ridding their bodies of toxins because their livers are not yet mature.

So, what is arsenic exactly? Arsenic is very common and powerful metalloid (an element that has qualities of both metals and nonmetals). Arsenic can be organic or inorganic. Organic arsenic is relatively benign, but inorganic arsenic is one of the most toxic compounds commonly found in regular life. In animal studies, those exposed to arsenic were more likely to have impaired mental abilities, increased cases of fetal mortality as well as kidney, lung, skin, and bladder cancer.

The two products every pregnant and breastfeeding mother should avoid are Rainbow Light Prenatal One by Nature’s Products and Lundberg’s Organic Brown Rice Syrup. Arsenic was detected in significant quantities in these supplements. Lundberg’s Organic Brown Rice Syrup contained 0.112 ± 0.005, 0.132 ± 0.009, and 0.108 ± 0.010 µg/L of arsenic/g. The Rainbow Light Prenatal One by Nature’s Products showed levels of 7.108 µg of arsenic/day. This is half the amount of arsenic that is considered safe to ingest in 24 hours. The WHO and the European Union have stated arsenic exposure should not exceed 12.85 µg/day (for adults who weigh 60kg/132.277lbs).

Arsenic in brown rice syrup can be particularly potent due to the growing and harvesting process. Rice is frequently watered with arsenic-laced water. As babies are often fed rice cereal products, rice products need to be closely monitored. Brown rice syrup is often used as a replacement for sugar. It has even more arsenic than other rice products because these brown rice grains do not have their outer hull removed. The outer hull is responsible for absorbing large quantities of arsenic from the watering process.

A study from January 2017 proved that arsenic becomes even more deadly when broken down by the body before it is excreted in urine. One of the main risks surrounding unintended arsenic consumption in pregnant mothers is the ability for inorganic arsenic metabolites to cross the placenta and puts the fetus at risk. When arsenic is metabolized (a process called arsenic methylation), the breakdown and excretion of arsenic changes the structure, but not the sequence, of a person’s DNA. This means that the introduction of arsenic to a fetus alters how an infant’s body “reads” their DNA sequences.

Though it was not studied in this experiment, if a woman were to take both the Rainbow Light Prenatal One and Lundberg’s Organic Brown Rice Syrup, she may introduce far too much arsenic into her body. Despite the complexity of this experiment, there is always room for more research! There needs to be additional studies on how much arsenic ingested by women is deposited in their breast milk, what long-term arsenic exposure does to babies, and how arsenic exposure can endanger a fetus.

A majority of the world’s health organizations recommend that babies be exclusively breastfed (EBF) for six months to a year, with the WHO citing two years as an ideal time. Most doctors and other health care workers instruct women to increase their daily caloric intake by 300-500 calories a day, as well as taking specialty vitamins while pregnant and breastfeeding. Many women, not just those who struggle with milk production, turn to certain supplements and food items that may help boost their output of breast milk. When picking vitamins and supplements, always check with your doctor to make sure the products you pick do more help than harm.

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