What Not to Eat: Arsenic!

Never one to pass up an opportunity to spread a little doom and gloom, I felt compelled to emerge from blog-writing hibernation to bring you the latest bummer food news.  Today, Consumer Reports released “Arsenic in Your Food,” a report describing its recent investigation of arsenic levels in rice.  The results are unsettling.  According to the report, analysis of 65 rice and rice products (including infant cereals, hot cereals, ready-to-eat cereals, rice cakes, rice crackers, rice pasta, rice flour and rice drinks) revealed that samples of almost every product contained measurable levels of total arsenic, including organic and inorganic forms.

Sound like cause for concern?  It is.  Inorganic arsenic is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and is known to cause bladder, lung and skin cancer (and may cause liver, kidney and prostate cancer as well).  Organic arsenic is less toxic, but still not exactly something you want to sprinkle on your sandwich; the forms DMA and MMA are classified as possible carcinogens.

Although arsenic levels varied significantly in the products tested by Consumer Reports, nearly all contained inorganic arsenic – sometimes in concentrations sufficient to raise red flags.  (Find the complete test results on the CR website.)  According to Consumer Reports, the investigation also revealed the following trends:

  • White rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas generally had higher levels of total arsenic and inorganic arsenic than rice samples from elsewhere (India, Thailand and California combined).
  • Within tested brands offering brown and white rice versions, brown rice had higher average total and inorganic arsenic than their white rice counterparts.
  • Some brown rice samples were lower in arsenic compared to some white rice samples which may be explained by agricultural practices or geographic location.
  • Infant rice cereals and drink products also contained worrisome levels of arsenic. Consumer Reports advises that children under the age of 5 not be given rice drinks as part of their daily diet, similar to advice given in the United Kingdom regarding rice milk.
  • People who ate rice had arsenic levels that were at least 44 percent greater than those who had not according to Consumer Reports' analysis of federal health data. Certain ethnic groups were more highly affected, including Mexicans, other Hispanics, and a broad category that included Asians.
  • Some food companies are concerned.  And methods have been introduced to try to reduce levels of arsenic in products.

What’s Up With All This Arsenic?

When plants are grown in soil or water that contains arsenic, they can absorb it.  Although some arsenic exists naturally in soils due to the weathering of certain minerals, most contamination is the result of human activity.  In the US, for instance, 1.6 million tons of arsenic have been used since 1910, in large part due to extensive use of arsenic-based pesticides for crop production, and the inclusion of arsenicals in animal feed.  The latter application is among the dirty / totally mind-blowing secrets of industrial livestock production – see, arsenicals are added to poultry feed in order to promote rapid growth. It works!  But it also causes pretty serious pollution.  (This is an example of the sort of “negative externality” I describe when ranting about economics and the true cost of industrial ag.)

It’s important to note that rice isn’t the only food affected by arsenic; in January, Consumer Reports discovered high levels in apple and grape juices, and a 2009-2010 EPA study found that vegetables contribute as much as 24% of dietary exposure to inorganic arsenic.  However, rice is able to absorb arsenic particularly effectively.  Furthermore, most domestic rice is grown in the south-central US, where cotton producers once used tremendous quantities of arsenical pesticides to stave off the boll weevil beetle.  Bad news for those who enjoy rice, rice products or, as we mentioned on Ecocentric earlier this year, energy bars and other foods sweetened with organic brown rice syrup (OBRS).

Where’s the Regulation?

Given the human health threat posed by arsenic, the EPA established a threshold of 10 parts per billion (ppb) in drinking water.  In a bold nod to safety and caution, New Jersey adopted a threshold of 5 ppb (which is actually the standard that was originally proposed by the EPA). In a bold move to head off criticism, the FDA announced this morning (coinciding directly with the release of the CR report) that it is working on a plan to establish regulatory limits for arsenic in food.

Given the high levels of arsenic documented during its investigations, Consumer Reports is calling on the FDA to set arsenic limits for rice products, apple juice and grape juice.  CR also recommends that the EPA phase out use of arsenical pesticides, that the FDA ban use of arsenic in livestock feed, that the EPA and USDA prohibit use of arsenic-contaminated manure as a crop fertilizer and (this one’s my favorite) that producers be prevented from feeding manure to animals (because yes, this practice now occurs regularly, thanks to masters of the gross-out, Big Ag).

What Can I Do About Arsenic?  Should I Freak Out?

Don’t freak out; arsenic concentrations aren’t so high that you're going to keel over halfway through your rice krispies.  But the cumulative impact of exposure to arsenic – even at low concentrations – can be harmful, so it’s best to avoid (especially if you're a pregnant woman or an infant).  According to Dr. Urvashi Rangan, Director of Safety and Sustainability at Consumer Reports, “The goal of our report is to inform – not alarm – consumers about the importance of reducing arsenic exposure and offer actions they can take moving forward, such as limiting their rice consumption.”

You can reduce arsenic exposure by limiting consumption of rice products to the quantities listed in the chart at the top of this post.  Consumer Reports also makes the following recommendations:

  • Rinse raw rice thoroughly before cooking and use a ratio of 6 cups water to 1 cup rice for cooking (draining the excess water afterward). Research has shown this can reduce arsenic levels.
  • Experiment with other grains. Though not arsenic-free, other studies have shown wheat and oats tend to have lower levels than rice.
  • Eat a varied diet to help minimize risk of exposure.
  • Keep in mind that some vegetables can accumulate arsenic when grown in contaminated soil. To help, clean vegetables thoroughly, especially potato skins.
  • Limit the consumption of other high-arsenic food.  Some fruit juices such as apple and grape juice can be high in arsenic, as Consumer Reports' previous tests showed.
  • Consumers' whose home water is not on a public water system should have it tested for arsenic and lead.  To find a certified lab, contact the local health department or call the federal Safe Drinking Water hotline at 800-426-4791.

Finally, you can urge the government to safeguard public health by implementing prudent arsenic policy. Visit the Consumers Union arsenic action page to get started.