Green Junction: Heavy metal pollution is a problem by Julie Peller Ph.D

Exposure to heavy metal pollution is a problem around the globe. Many heavy metals, such as lead, chromium, arsenic, and mercury, can lead to serious harm upon exposure, often in meager amounts. Heavy metals can be taken in the body through food, water, air, and commercial products, such as old paint, treated lumber, old pipes, and other materials. It is worrisome that a very recent report from a congressional investigation revealed that several types of baby food contain high levels of heavy metals, such as arsenic and lead.

Heavy metals are found naturally in the earth, but certain human activities have critically altered their geochemical cycles. Many have been mined and concentrated on producing all kinds of products. Most environmental contamination and human exposure result from mining and processing and also domestic and agricultural use. Arsenic contamination appears to be most severe in Southeast Asia and some states of India. The source of the arsenic is likely from eroding rocks containing sulfide minerals in the Himalayas, which are transported downstream. Arsenic is associated with several human health problems, including cancers. For babies, exposure to toxic metals is known to impact neurological development and long-term brain function.

The report on baby food is not new. Over the past years, specific rice cereal brands have been found to contain arsenic, and studies have also shown contamination in other baby foods and formulas. A study published in 2016 found that “arsenic exposure from 3 servings of rice cereal exceeded that of formula made with water containing arsenic at ten mg/L, the US EPA’s maximum contaminant level.” The study concluded, “rice cereal can markedly increase arsenic exposure among US infants relative to breast milk and formula.” Further, rice is known to absorb more arsenic from soil than other plants.

The current report of metals in baby foods is disturbing but reflective of the US’s hesitance to enact regulations. This investigation also unveiled internal company standards that permit dangerously high levels of toxic metals. There exists a need for laws and regulations in modern society, given our dependence on one another and the dominance of corporate food vendors and manufacturers of so many other products. Too often, monetary profits interfere with ethical processes that protect people’s health, safety, and environment. Under the recent moral guidance of Pope Francis, the founder of Inclusive Capital Partners, expressed, “The capital markets are such a powerful force, that we need to remember that our actions, who we are and what we are, are based on morality and ethics. And so the Holy Father asks us to put profits in service of planet and people.

Julie Peller Ph.D. is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ) and she leads the Environmental Ministry at Nativity of Our Savior in Portage IN. Julie has been writing a weekly column for church bulletins for the past ~6 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are in Advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), student and citizen participation in environmental work.

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