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Rocket Fuel Chemical Found in Infant Formula

CDC Scientists Find Perchlorate in Samples of Powdered Infant Formula
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

April 3, 2009 -- CDC scientists have found a chemical called perchlorate in samples of powdered infant formula.

Perchlorate occurs naturally in the environment; it's also made for use in rocket propellant, explosives, fireworks, and road flares.

Perchlorate has been found in drinking water in some areas of the country, as well as in food and breast milk.

High levels of exposure to perchlorate may disrupt the function of the thyroid gland, which is needed for normal growth and development of the central nervous system, according to background information from the FDA.

The formula findings, published online in the Journal of Exposure Sciences and Environmental Epidemiology, raise more questions than answers.

Those questions include the health effects of perchlorate from powdered infant formula, whether iodine supplementation might offset perchlorate-related thyroid problems, and whether the formula samples that were tested were representative of powdered infant formula nationwide.

"It's important to note that infant formula contains iodine and that iodine would be expected to ameliorate any potential effects that perchlorate would have," Ben Blount, PhD, Chief of the CDC's Perchlorate Biomonitoring Laboratory, tells WebMD.

Perchlorate Study

The researchers -- who included Blount and Joshua Schier, MD, a medical toxicologist with the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health -- bought four types of powdered infant formula at several grocery stores in one U.S. city in 2006.

Here's what they bought (no brands or companies are mentioned in the study):

  • Powdered infant formula made from cow's milk (with lactose)
  • Powdered infant formula made from lactose-free cow's milk
  • Powdered infant formula made from soy
  • Powdered infant formula made from synthetic amino acids

After mixing the formula with perchlorate-free water, the researchers checked perchlorate levels in the formula. Then they estimated how much perchlorate babies of various ages and sizes might be exposed to, based on their feeding schedule, how much perchlorate was in local tap water, and other factors.

The results: "Perchlorate was found in all brands and types of infant formula," with the highest levels in powdered infant formulas made from cows' milk containing lactose. That's probably because mammals can store perchlorate in breast tissue during lactation, Blount notes.

And in certain hypothetical situations -- based on water levels of perchlorate and formula doses -- babies might be exposed to more perchlorate than health officials believe to be safe.

But more work is needed to see if those estimates reflect reality. 

"There needs to be a closer and much more detailed analysis of how much perchlorate is actually getting into infants' bodies," Schier tells WebMD.

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