Did you know that arsenic in rice is being detected all across the globe? And did you know that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has known about it for nearly 25 years?
Ever since the FDA launched its Total Diet Study program in 1991, researchers have been aware that arsenic is in our air, soil, water and food. (1) Most people have no idea, however, because the media has been pretty hush-hush about it.
Fact is, arsenic is a well-known poison, and exposure to it can cause a myriad of diseases. Everyone needs to be educated about the danger they put themselves in when they eat certain foods! (2)
The Source of Arsenic in Rice and Other Foods
Present through soil and water absorption, arsenic has been detected in a variety of different types of foods including fruits, grains and vegetables.
According to the FDA, (1)
“Arsenic is a chemical element present in the environment from both natural and human sources, including erosion of arsenic-containing rocks, volcanic eruptions, contamination from mining and smelting ores, and previous or current use of arsenic-containing pesticides.”
Because of its widespread prevalence, arsenic has been in our food chain since the beginning of time. Some sources suggest that arsenic levels are so elevated today because humans commonly tamper with the environment. (3) It may be alarming to hear, but there’s no way to avoid contamination because arsenic is naturally found in our water and soil. Even if you eat 100% pure, non-GMO, organic foods that are grown by local farmers, you will still be affected in at least small ways.
Types of Arsenic
There are two types of arsenic compounds, and together they are known as “total arsenic.”
- Organic Arsenic – It’s important to understand that “organic” arsenic has nothing to do with organic farming practices as commonly referred today. The organic distinction simply indicates that a carbon atom is part of the arsenic bond. Common sources include fish and crustaceans.
- Inorganic Arsenic – Abundant in nature and without a carbon atom in the arsenic bond, inorganic arsenic is the type that remains associated with long-term health problems, including cancer. These compounds are oftentimes found in manufactured items like pressure-treated wood.
With this said, it shouldn’t be shocking to learn that detecting arsenic in everyday rice is common. Both organic and inorganic forms are regularly discovered in soil and ground water, as well as in many of the foods that we regularly eat. (1) Nonetheless, it’s interesting to note that the FDA doesn’t set limits for total arsenic or inorganic arsenic in our food chain.
In addition to causing heart disease, long-term exposure to elevated levels of arsenic is listed as a cancer-causing agent in the Thirteenth Report on Carcinogens published by the National Toxicology Program because it has been shown to cause bladder, kidney, liver, lung and prostate cancers. (1, 2)
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), arsenic can be responsible for the following: (4)
- Acute effects – Symptoms of acute arsenic poisoning include abdominal pain, diarrhea and vomiting. Potential symptoms to follow are numbness and tingling of the hands and feet, muscle cramping and even death.
- Long-term effects – “Long-term exposure to arsenic from drinking water and food can cause cancer and skin lesions. It has also been associated with developmental effects, cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity and diabetes.” Generally observed in the skin first, long-term arsenic poisoning can cause skin lesions, pigmentation changes and hyperkeratosis (hard patches on the palms and soles of the feet). The WHO insists that such poisoning can “occur after a minimum exposure of approximately five years and may be a precursor to skin cancer.”
In addition to skin cancer, long-term exposure to arsenic may also cause cancer of the bladder and lungs. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) took the significant step of classifying arsenic and arsenic compounds in our food and water as cancer-causing agents. (4)
- Low-level exposure – In addition to increasing the risk of birth defects in developing fetuses, low levels of arsenic can cause abnormal heart rhythm, blood vessel damage, deceased red and white cell production, impaired nerve function, nausea, red or swollen skin, skin warts and corns, and vomiting.
- Repeated exposure – Known to cause kidney and liver damage, repeated arsenic exposure has been linked to stomach issues and darkening of the skin.
Common Foods that Contain Arsenic
1. Arsenic in Rice
Ironically, it isn’t the “unhealthy” eater who is most at risk, but people who choose to go wheat-free and stay away from gluten-containing products. As stated by Consumer Reports, there were measurable amounts of arsenic in virtually every one of the 60 varieties of rice that they tested! (5)
Since rice is one of the most popular gluten-free alternatives on the market today, this finding should sound the alarm. Unlike most crops that don’t absorb a significant amount of arsenic from the ground, rice is different because it acts like a virtual arsenic sponge. (1)
This is why the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations warns that, “Rice in particular can take up more arsenic than other foods and due to its high consumption can contribute significantly to arsenic exposure.” (6) Because arsenic appears increasingly in our water and air supply, it remains unclear if it’s safe to eat any type of rice at this point.
2. Arsenic in Apple Juice
In addition to finding arsenic in rice, it’s been discovered that apple juice is another source of this deadly toxin. After testing 88 samples from 28 brands of apple and grape juice, Consumer Reports discovered the following:
- “Roughly 10 percent of our juice samples, from five brands, had total arsenic levels that exceeded federal drinking-water standards. Most of that arsenic was inorganic arsenic, a known carcinogen.
- One in four samples had lead levels higher than the FDA’s bottled-water limit of 5 ppb. As with arsenic, no federal limit exists for lead in juice.
- Apple and grape juice constitute a significant source of dietary exposure to arsenic, according to our analysis of federal health data from 2003 through 2008.” (5)
Because 35 percent of children ages 5 and under regularly drink juice, they’re especially at risk. Still, the FDA refuses to set arsenic standards in juice.
3. Arsenic in Protein Powder
Another common source of arsenic comes from pre-made protein shakes and protein powders.
According to the July 2010 Consumer Reports magazine,
We purchased 15 protein powders and drinks mainly in the New York metro area or online and tested multiple samples of each for arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury. The results showed a considerable range, but levels in three products were of particular concern because consuming three servings a day could result in daily exposure to arsenic, cadmium, or lead exceeding the limits proposed by USP. (5)
The two main offenders were Muscle Milk and EAS Myoplex, which raises some serious eyebrows because of the vast amount of athletes who consume these products on an ongoing basis. Considering the risk associated with regular use, this essentially means that people who consume these products are slowly, systematically being poisoned.
4. Arsenic in Chicken
Since the 1940s, farmers have used arsenic in animal feed to promote weight gain and growth because it adds bulk to the animals while fighting certain diseases. As far as we can tell, 70 percent of poultry raised in the U.S. has been fed arsenic-contaminated drugs. (7)
After 70 years of unhindered use, the FDA finally stepped in, yet not without kicking and screaming. Recently “discovering” that four drugs added to chicken feed had toxic levels of arsenic in them, the FDA banned just three. The fourth is still on the market and is currently being fed to turkeys.
Just as infuriating is the fact that the FDA dragged its heals through the entire process, and it took the agency literally four years to put this ban in place. It also took a sizable petition signed by thousands of activists to get them to respond. Moreover, the drug companies themselves pulled the three banned drugs before the FDA made its move.
Although the periodic table element as we know it today wasn’t first discovered until 1250 by German scholastic Albertus Magnus, there are descriptions that arsenic was used as a poison way back to the Greek physician Dioscorides (40-90 AD). (8)
History tells us that arsenic was the most widely used poison from Ancient Rome through the Middle Ages, in part because its properties made it both undetectable by its victims and readily available to the masses.
- Arsenic is widely distributed in nature
- Arsenic lacks color
- Arsenic lacks odor
- Arsenic lacks taste
- Arsenic’s symptoms closely resembled food poisoning and common gastrointestinal disorders
As scientific advances made it possible to detect arsenic poisoning around the 18th century, people steered clear of it as a tool to poison people and began to use it for a variety of manufacturing purposes.
Convinced that it could be used for therapeutic purposes, pharmacologist Paul Ehrlich pioneered using arsenic to cure infectious diseases like syphilis during the early 20th century. Soon replaced by the much safer penicillin, Ehrlich developed the only known cure to the dreaded spirochete bacteria that causes syphilis, which he coined Salvarsan. Used widely by dermatologists well into the 1960s, the antimicrobial properties of arsenic have helped many people battle a number of bacterial and parasitic infections.
After a stint of biological warfare use during the 20th century World Wars, arsenic is still used today in a variety of ways: (4)
- Alloying agent
- Feed additives
- Glass manufacturing
- Hide tanning
- Metal adhesive
- Paper and textiles
- Pigments (ceramics, paint, wallpaper)
- Semiconductor industry
- Wood (preservative)
In a 2012 press release, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods Michael Taylor claims that,
“It’s critical to not get ahead of the science. The FDA’s ongoing data collection and other assessments will give us a solid scientific basis for determining what action levels and/or other steps are needed to reduce exposure to arsenic in rice and rice products.” (9)
I’m not sure if I agree. Instead, their job is to protect the public from the ongoing assault of this powerful toxin and, so far, they haven’t succeeded. In the words of toxicologist and arsenic research specialist, Joshua Hamilton, PhD: (5)
“People sometimes say, ‘If arsenic exposure is so bad, why don’t you see more people sick or dying from it?’ But the many diseases likely to be increased by exposure even at relatively low levels are so common already that its effects are overlooked simply because no one has looked carefully for the connection.”
Clearly, just as our government did with lead in house paint and gas, federal standards must be put in place to greatly reduce the presence of arsenic. Until then, as I’ve always said, the best approach to keeping your family healthy and happy is to eat a well-rounded diet filled with whole fruits and veggies and limiting all grains as much as possible.