Consumer Reports did a recent test of arsenic in foods. They tested 223 rice products - both food and beverages - everything from baby cereals and rice cakes to Uncle Ben's and Lundberg and Whole Foods brands; they all tested positive, some with worrisome levels of arsenic. Click here for complete test results. For the past 20 years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also been testing arsenic levels in rice.
What is Arsenic?
You're right if poison comes to mind. Arsenic is found naturally in water, rocks and soil. Arsenic inorganic compounds can be a killer at high doses. Do you remember your chemistry? Metalloids? Arsenic is chemical element- known as atomic number 33. Up until 2003, arsenic was an ingredient in pressure treated wood. It is still used in some industries, including copper and lead manufacturing, and in agriculture for chemical pesticides and animal feed. Arsenic molecules can be organic or inorganic compounds. Inorganic arsenic is a carcinogen.
What's a carcinogen?
Carcinogens are cancer causing. You don't want to overexpose yourself to carcinogens. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), "arsenic has been linked to cancer of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidney, nasal passages, liver, and prostate." The American Cancer Society reports that, "the highest levels of arsenic (in all forms) in foods can be found in rice, rice cereal, seafood, mushrooms and poultry." They say that many other foods may contain low levels of arsenic. Arsenic levels can be very high in prawns.
Arsenic in Animal foods
We also get low levels of arsenic through the food chain, by eating animals who have been fed rice straw or have been administered arsenic containing Roxarsone, which was a controversial drug fed to chickens to make them gain weight and kill parasites (coccidiosis). The FDA reports Roxarsone was voluntarily suspended from the market in 2011; however, other arsenic containing products may remain in use, such as Nitarsone.
Should we worry?
Most human exposure to arsenic comes from our drinking water. The EPA has regulatory guidelines in place to control the levels and keep our drinking water safe. In 1975 the arsenic limit in water was 50 ppb, which was based on a Public Health Service standard originally established in 1942. The National Academy of Sciences decided in 1999 that the current standard did not adequately protect public health and proposed to lower the arsenic limit to 5 ppb; the final ruling was 10 ppb made in 2001. New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection lowered their upper limit even more, to the 5 ppb. The lower, the better. Thanks to Consumer Reports, more Americans are now aware that there are currently no EPA guidelines for arsenic levels in foods.
We wouldn't have to worry if regulatory guidelines were initiated to limit arsenic in foods. Until then, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends serving a greater variety of grains to reduce possible risks from arsenic in rice until more data is available. Consumers Union scientists recommend:
• The EPA phase out pesticides that contain arsenic.
• The USDA and the EPA stop using arsenic-laden manure as a fertilizer.
• The FDA ban feeding arsenic-containing drugs and animal byproducts to animals.
Regulating arsenic in foods would most likely bring about tighter controls on all of the above. Taking care of Mother Earth always makes the most sense and will keep us appreciating and eating nutritious, whole grain rice.
Rice is the seed from Oryza sativa, a beautiful 24 to 36-inch grass that thrives and self sows freely in bogs and water gardens.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Paddy in West Bengal, India - Creative Commons license
Questions and Answers: FDA's Analysis of Arsenic in Rice and Rice Products