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Rocket Fuel Chemical Found in Baby Formula

By April 3, 2009

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Parents who combine powdered baby formula with tap water in some parts of the United States could end up feeding their babies a mixture contaminated with unsafe levels of perchlorate—a chemical used in rocket fuel, fireworks and explosives, which may affect thyroid function and interfere with infant brain development—according to a study by scientists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study found trace amounts of perchlorate in 15 different brands of powdered baby formula, with the highest concentrations of perchlorate in formula based on cow’s milk with lactose, and lower concentrations in soy, lactose-free and elemental powdered baby formulas.

Earlier tests by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found perchlorate contamination in drinking water supplies nationwide. According to the CDC, mixing powdered baby formula containing perchlorate with contaminated drinking water could create baby formula with perchlorate levels unsafe for adults, let alone infants. Although some perchlorate occurs naturally, most perchlorate contamination of drinking water comes from military bases, chemical plants and rocket test sites. Perchlorate is also found in fertilizers imported from Chile and widely used in the United States.

No one knows the full extent of perchlorate contamination in the United States, but it is clearly widespread. In 2005, using limited EPA data, the General Accountability Office found that perchlorate had contaminated 153 public water systems in 26 states, and polluted the soil, groundwater and drinking water in 35 states and the District of Columbia. Traces of perchlorate also show up in many fruits, vegetables and other foods as an indirect result of the agricultural use of perchlorate-laced water or fertilizer.

According to the draft EPA, as many as 16.6 million Americans are continually exposed to unsafe levels of perchlorate, while independent researchers estimate the number of at-risk people as 20 million to 40 million. Despite the perceived risks, the EPA has never set a federal standard that would protect public health by regulating the amount of perchlorate allowed in U.S. drinking water.

Parents who want to protect their children or unborn infants from the potentially adverse health effects of perchlorate have a few different options:

  • Contact your local water authority to determine whether the water coming into your home contains perchlorate; request a copy of your water district's annual water report and review it with your doctor;
  • Install a home water filter that is certified to remove perchlorate during the filtration process; check with the manufacturer to be sure the unit will filter out perchlorate;
  • Talk with your obstetrician and/or pediatrician to make sure your child is receiving enough iodine to counter the potentially harmful effects of perchlorate they may be receiving in their diet and to ensure good thyroid function.
Don't assume that you can avoid feeding your baby perchlorate by mixing powdered baby formula with bottled water, switching to liquid formula, or even breastfeeding.

Several brands of bottled water are nothing more than tap water, and testing requirements for bottled water are far less rigorous than for public water supplies. Some bottled water could easily contain as much or more perchlorate than the water coming from your tap. The CDC study only tested powdered baby formula, but given the widespread occurrence of perchlorate in drinking water, groundwater and food, there is no guarantee that liquid baby formula is less likely to contain the chemical than powdered formula, and even breast milk may contain traces of perchlorate.

As a parent, your best strategy is to work with your doctor to make sure your baby is receiving enough iodine and to avoid giving them food that combines perchlorate from more than one source, thereby increasing the total amount your child is ingesting.

Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images


April 6, 2009 at 10:42 am
(1) kate says:

You wrote on Apr. 6, 2009 at 10:38 AM

It sounds alarming and certainly makes for good headlines. But the headlines are also very misleading. I thought I’d try and put it in perspective. What was found in some baby formula are trace amounts of something called perchlorates.

Perchlorates are actually in breastmilk too. In fact they are in almost everything we eat and drink. That’s because perchlorates are in our drinking water nationwide.

Why are perchlorates important? Because they can interfere with the thryroid and it’s ability to absorb iodine. When the thyroid absorbs iodine it makes hormones which are released into the body and control metabolism.

There are several originators of perchlorates. They can certainly be synthetically manufactured such as with rocket fuel and fireworks. But think realistically for a moment. It’s not as if we use fireworks on a continuous basis. And NASA only launches rockets from a few locations. So those two things couldn’t possibly cause perchlorates to permeate the entire country. So how is it that perchlorates are found in our drinking water? The FDA says perclorates are also naturally occurring in our environment, found in something called potash ore (a mineral deep in the earth), and also in nitrate fertilizer deposits stemming from fertilizer the U.S. bought from Chile.

So perchlorates are found in the grass and other foods that cows eat. Formula is made form cow’s milk. That’s how trace amounts of perchlorates were found in formula. But think about it. What about the milk you drink? And what about the steak you eat? And how about the lettuce and other vegetables you eat that may have been grown with fertilizer that contains perchlorates?

The headlines “Rocket Fuel found in Baby Formula” are alarmist at best. First of all, the trace levels detected in the formula are well below the reference valus that the EPA has issued. If you read the articles you’ll find that what’s potentially harmful is mixing drinking water (which has perchlorates) with formula because that may make the level of perchlorates exceed the EPA’s reference point. BUT, it’s also important to note that formula also has iodine in it, which can counter the effect of perchlorates. That’s more than you can say for most of the food we eat and drink. In fact the FDA even says that formula and breastmlk are good sources of iodine.

But there are things you can do to make sure you’re not mixing formula with perchlroate-contaminated water. You can use bottled water. And you can check with your local water facility to see what the level of perchlorates is in your community’s drinking water. If it’s high, (the EPA has stipulated what’s safe and some states have gone even farther), you can use a home treatment device on your faucet, but make sure it’s one that specifies perchlorate removal.

Here’s what not to do: panic.

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