Unfounded Alarm over Copper in Baby Formula
Copper sulphate is an amazing chemical. The brilliant blue crystals find a wide range of uses in the world of agriculture, chemical education, nutrition, and even art. We can thank CuSO4 for the wines we enjoy, as many grapes today are treated with a pesticide known as Bordeaux mixture, composed of copper sulphate and lime. Bordeaux mixture was also instrumental in saving potato crops in early 19th century Europe, preventing a food crisis. Today copper sulphate is often used as an algaecide in residential swimming pools.
Some artists have found unique uses for copper sulphate. In 2008, Roger Hiorns filled a room with 75,000 litres of CuSO4 solution, allowed it to crystalize, drained the room, and thus created a crystal sculpture he called ‘Seizure’. In chemical education, copper sulphate is a common reagent used in many labs to demonstrate basic concepts in chemistry such as substitution, and hydration/dehydration reactions.
Perhaps of greater interest is the use of CuSO4 in the food industry. A controversy erupted recently in ‘health food’ circles about the presence of the chemical in baby formula. As the argument goes, a chemical that is used as a pesticide in agriculture, a reagent in chemistry labs, and admittedly, one that is toxic at high concentrations, should not be found in formula. Alarmists claim that baby formula containing copper sulphate can trigger a spectrum of disorders, from asthma to cancer.
Certainly under some conditions CuSO4 is potentially harmful. But let’s not forget the cornerstone of toxicology laid down by Paracelsus over five hundred years ago: “docit sola venenum facit,” or “only the dose makes the poison.” Basically, this means that there are no safe or dangerous chemicals, only safe or dangerous ways to use them. The principleis pointedly exemplified by a contest in which people competed to win a video game console (“hold your wee for a Wii”) by seeing who could drink the most water before urinating. The competition took an unfortunate turn as one of the front-runners passed out and had to be taken to the hospital, where she later died from ‘water intoxication’.
But why is copper sulphate being used in baby formula in the first place? There is certainly no need to colour the formula blue. And there are no grapes or potatoes in formula that need preserving either. The concern can be traced to a report in naturalnews.com., a website known in scientific circles for it scientific illiteracy. CuSO4 is simply a source of dietary copper for infants. Copper is one of the 26 essential minerals required in a human’s diet (indeed, our body cannot function without an appreciable amount of Cu2+ — about 1.4-2.1 mg/kg body weight in a mature adult, which makes for about 184 mg in a 75 kg adult). Along with several other essential minerals included in the formula (such as zinc and iron, both of which can pose a health risk at levels significantly higher than they are present), copper sulphate ensures that the daily nutritional requirements of a growing child are met. Copper sulphate, rather than other compounds is used is used because it is a readily absorbed form of copper. Breast milk also contains some copper, possibly even more than is found in formula, but nobody seems to have an issue with that. Nor should they. At the dose present in formula or in breast milk, copper has benefits and no risks.
There is no question that if copper is consumed in doses greater than the body needs, adverse effects can arise. In the case of copper in infant formula, careful studies have determined acceptable levels that can be present per serving. When a decision to add a nutrient to baby formula is made, regulators take into account everything from toxicology and expected exposure to speed of elimination. They determine threshold levels where adverse effects may begin and then build in large safety factors. In the case of copper in baby formula, the 60 microgram recommended minimum set by the government of Canada’s Food and Drug Regulations (FDR) is some thousand times less than the dose that is shown to elicit the smallest adverse effect. This dose is orders of magnitude less than the amount of copper sulphate used as a pesticide. In summary, the alarm raised by naturalnews.com over the presence of copper sulphate in infant formula is totally unfounded and smacks of ignorance of the basic principles of toxicology and physiology.