"Detecting the Minneapolis level of 0.01 ppb of Atrazine [in the municipal water supply] is the equivalent of measuring one inch in 1,600,000 miles, or 67 trips around planet Earth."

A pinch of salt

The diets of our young continue to make headlines. Last month we were warned that levels of salt in processed food posed a danger to small children after the death of baby Leroy Elders. Some of the more responsible reporting rightly suggested that although tragic, the instances of salt overdose in infants was extremely rare, particularly in recent years since baby formula had overtaken the use of cow's milk as the prevalent form of feed because it contained less salt. Angela Philips, writing in the Guardian commented that "the feeding of babies has become a minefield" and that the sheer quantity of advice was baffling to most parents. This month a study, published in the British Medical Association's Archives of Disease in Childhood, concluded there was "no clear evidence" that formula feed provided any health benefit. Dr Ruth Morley of the Menzies Centre for Population Health Research in Tasmania, who lead the research concluded: "Our data do not support a routine need for supplementation in children between 9 and 18 months, or feeding formula rather than cows' milk." So the claim that iron-enriched formula actually reduces the risk of iron deficiency and anaemia according to this research now appears unsubstantiated. Meanwhile the Department of Health continued to extol the virtues of breast milk and suggested that iron-enriched formula was acceptable after six months and that cows' milk should only be given after 12 months.

In the US, the Environmental Working Group [EWG] placed a full-page advert in the New York Times on 27 July. Under the scare banner "Absolute Outrage" it contended that because municipal drinking water contained quantities of a pesticide atrazine, a chemical that may cause mammary cancer in rats the practice of preparing baby formula with tap water thus posed a significant risk to infants' health. The 'outrage' as expressed by the EWG was that parents throughout the US could no longer rely on Congress to protect the health of their children. An article published on the website of the Statistical Assessment Service attempts to put the EWG's figures into perspective. "The Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for traces of atrazine in drinking water is set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at 3 ppb – that's parts per billion, or 3 micrograms per liter. The average annual concentration of atrazine in industrial Newark, NJ, is 0.19 ppb. In farm-state Minneapolis, it is 0.01 ppb, which is 1 one-hundredth of a ppb. Is that a lot? Well, 1 ppb is equivalent to a measure of one inch in 16,000 miles. Detecting the Minneapolis level of 0.01 ppb of Atrazine is the equivalent of measuring one inch in 1,600,000 miles, or 67 trips around planet Earth." Put in those terms the actual risk appears infinitesimal so why the sensationalism? We have witnessed these tactics countless times and our ability to detect the minute only serves to exacerbate the problem. One of the most effective ways of creating panic is by putting the fear of god into the hearts of parents. On September 15 the BBC and The Telegraph, to name but two, reported that a toxic chemical ESBO used in the seals of jars of baby food, had been detected seeping into the product. ESBO is only dangerous in large quantities and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said that there was no "immediate health risk." It would appear that this particular minefield is continuing to expand. Surely it's time to send in the bomb disposal squad!