Rice cereal contains too much arsenic to be a safe food for babies, and new research reveals just how much arsenic they may be absorbing.

Babies who ate rice cereal had three times more arsenic in their urine than babies who didn’t, according to findings from a study led by Dr. Margaret Karagas, an epidemiologist at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College

Karagas, who began her career studying arsenic in New Hampshire’s water supplies, was a pioneer in demonstrating that food – not local drinking water – poses the greatest risk of arsenic exposure for Americans. And while rice and rice-based foods are a staple in many families, the health risks are most severe, and the dietary substitutions easiest to make, for babies and young children.

“We knew from previous studies… that urinary arsenic levels tend to be higher in rice eaters than non-rice eaters,” Karagas told Healthy Child Healthy World. “However, this hadn’t been studied in infants and young children.”

Here she answers more of our questions about arsenic in food and how it puts babies at risk.

HCHW: You started out studying the problem of arsenic in our water supply. What does your new research suggest about the populations at risk for arsenic exposure?

Margaret Karagas: We found that about 80 percent of infants had been introduced to rice cereal in their first year of life. At one year of age, about 55 percent of infants had eaten some type of rice product in the past two days; 33 percent had eaten rice snacks.

Thus, infants and young children, who may be especially vulnerable to arsenic’s toxic effects, appear to commonly consume rice and rice products. These products may contain arsenic concentrations above the European Union standard for rice products aimed at infants and young children, and the proposed U.S. FDA limit for arsenic in infant rice cereal.

What harm might high arsenic exposures cause to babies and young children? When are they most vulnerable to it?

MK: Our research on the health impacts of these levels of exposures is ongoing, but there’s a growing body of evidence, including from our own group, that in utero and early life exposure to arsenic – a known carcinogen – may adversely impact growth, immunity and neurodevelopment, even at relatively low levels of exposure.

What is your advice to parents about limiting arsenic exposure for their children and families?

MK: Children need a nutritious diet. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends introduction of a wide variety of foods including a variety of grains and offering a variety of textures.

For more tips about limiting children’s exposure to arsenic, visit the Healthy Child Healthy World blog.

The Food and Drug Administration recently proposed a limit on the amount of inorganic arsenic that manufacturers can allow in infants’ rice cereal – a limit Healthy Child Healthy World thinks is too weak to protect children’s health.

To join Healthy Child in urging the FDA to set a stronger limit and to do more for our kids, click here.