Arsenic is an element with widely recognized toxicity. While most often associated with groundwater contamination, especially in places like India, it turns out that exposures in the U.S. are also not trivial. But how can this be, given that America has the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Safe Drinking Water Act? Because water isn’t the issue for most Americans, it’s the food. And currently no U.S. regulations exist for monitoring arsenic in food. What is the main food to watch out for, you ask? Unfortunately, a food that has become a staple in our diets; that is, rice. And among rice crops grown around the world, U.S. rice has the highest arsenic levels! In this blog I’ll talk about why that is and what specifically the health effects of arsenic exposure are. In my next blog, I’ll then highlight how one can reduce his/her arsenic exposure while not having to cut back on rice consumption. It’s really just a matter of cooking technique.
Arsenic & Health Effects
Arsenic is a semi-metallic element that, while naturally occurring, also enters the environment through pesticide spraying and other industrial processes. In its inorganic form, it is recognized to be a Level 1 human carcinogen by the U.S. EPA, linked to cancer of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidney, nasal passages, liver, and prostate. Non-cancer toxicity can produce discolored skin, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, numbness in the hands and feet, partial paralysis, and even blindness. In other words, arsenic is something you definitely want to avoid! And according to recent studies, there appears no safe level of exposure. That is, your risk of developing cancer is proportional to your arsenic intake.
What’s more, the average person in the U.S. consumes about a half cup of rice per day. Given the arsenic levels in some U.S. grown rice crops, this equates to drinking 1 liter of water containing 10 ppb arsenic (10 ppb is the maximum arsenic allowed in U.S. drinking water). Clearly then, arsenic exposure through rice warrants some concern.
Arsenic exposure is of particular importance to pregnant women as this toxicant can cross the placental barrier with ease. On the bright side, studies show that arsenic does not readily enter breast milk. So once the baby is born, one needn’t worry about exposure through breastfeeding. In fact, reports show breast milk to contain less arsenic than milk formulas.
So how is arsenic turning up in our rice? First, due to the crops physiology as well as the biogeochemistry of the rice patty fields, rice itself tends to preferentially absorb arsenic relative to other crops. That U.S. rice has the highest arsenic levels, however, is largely thanks to the agricultural industry’s historic spraying of arsenic pesticides to cotton fields and orchards. Unlike many toxic agents which break down over time, arsenic is an element and therefore does not deteriorate. So once it is released to the environment, it’s there to stay. Not surprisingly then, many U.S. agricultural fields remain contaminated with arsenic.
Be sure to tune in next week to learn how you can reduce your arsenic exposure and still eat your favorite rice dishes!
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-Shahir Masri, M.S.