Eating and Drinking Arsenic

A new study by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, found an infant formula sweetened with organic brown rice syrup to have a total arsenic concentration level of as much as six times the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) drinking water limit. Based on their findings, the authors concluded there is an “urgent need” to pass regulatory limits on arsenic in food.

Arsenic levels in U.S. drinking water must be under 10 parts per billion (ppb), according to EPA regulations. Inorganic arsenic is a tasteless and odorless semi-metal acknowledged by the EPA to cause cancer of the skin, lung, and bladder.

“I would certainly advise parents who are concerned about their children’s exposure to arsenic not to feed them formula where brown rice syrup is the main ingredient,” said Brian Jackson of Dartmouth College, the lead author of the study.

In addition to baby formula, cereal bars containing rice and gel-like “energy shots” with brown rice syrup were also tested for arsenic. Cereal bars with rice had arsenic concentrations of 23-128ppb, while the bars without rice had a lower 8-27ppb arsenic concentration. The three energy shots tested had arsenic concentrations ranging from 84-171 ppb. The authors stressed that “inorganic arsenic was the main arsenic species in the majority of food products tested in this study.”

A 2007 study by Andrew Meharg, chair of biogeochemistry at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, suggested that the location of rice paddies could why the food is contaminated. Rice in the U.S. is largely grown across the south in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Missouri and Florida on old cotton fields that were once heavily sprayed with arsenic-based pesticides to control the boll weevil bug. Like lead, mercury and other heavy metals, arsenic can persist in soil for years. When Meharg examined arsenic levels in rice, he found the highest concentrations to be in the south-central state-grown varieties.

“Obviously, people don’t eat rice and drop dead the next day,” said Tracy Punshon, Ph.D., a research assistant professor in Dartmouth’s department of biological sciences and coauthor of the NIEHS study. “You’re looking at probably a chronic effect on health. Here in New Hampshire, where I live, we have natural arsenic in the ground water, and what you see in people who don’t test their water and filter out their arsenic, that has translated into a higher-than-average risk of bladder cancer in this state.”

Apple juice has also been on the radar for high arsenic levels. A study published in Consumer Reports magazine last month found that about 10% of juice samples from five brands had total arsenic levels that exceeded federal drinking water standards. Dr. Mehmet Oz, host of the Dr. Oz Show, warned his viewers about high levels of arsenic in apple juice last fall.

On February 8, 2012, Congressman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced the “Arsenic Prevention and Protection from Lead Exposure in Juice Act of 2012’’ or “APPLE Juice Act of 2012” to “protect children from arsenic and lead in fruit juices.” According to the bill, 70% of the apple juice consumed in the U.S is imported from China, where arsenic is still an approved pesticide.

“The unacceptable levels of arsenic and lead in juices currently sitting on shelves at the supermarket present a danger for our children and their health,” said Pallone. “Setting basic standards for arsenic and lead in products whose consumers are primarily children is not only the right thing to do; it will help give parents the peace of mind that the juices their children drink daily are safe.”