Arsenic in Rice - Cause for Concern

       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.


  1. Shahir-
    This is such an interesting article. I honestly had no idea that we needed to worry about arsenic levels in rice crops until a few weeks ago, and certainly would never have guessed that the rice crops of the USA were the main culprits for high levels of arsenic! I favor rice grown in the southwestern Asian part of the globe, so I will have to do some research as to what (if any) the levels are for my favorite brand. Thank you for bringing this issue to our attention!
    What can we do as consumers to help ensure that this can be part of the USA and EPA regulations to decrease the toxicity of crops?

  2. This is a very interesting article.

    In fact, I have both a question and a comment regarding the findings:

    1. One thing new and interesting that I learned from the article regarded the U.S. having the highest rice Arsenic levels, and also that this often goes without the requiring of more strict regulatory procedures. Wow.

    In addition,

    2. Questions which I have relating to this article are: 'Why do consumer advocates not fight for Arsenic labeling of rice, similar to the discussion surrounding GMO's?'


    'Is there a way to separate Rice in particular (from other pesticide sprayed crops), so that there is a change within it's future biogeochemical structure; which is devoid of Arsenic?'

  3. Enjoyed this article. I had no idea about the levels of arsenic in US rice. Since the arsenic is considered to be a level 1 human carcinogen, why has the USDA not done anything about this? It really is disturbing that we are allowed to still consume rice that has these types of levels of arsenic. And why are there not regulations concerning what is used in the pesticide being used on crops and industrial processes?

  4. Shahir
    This article was very informative, this is something that I was not aware of and I am a household that consumes a great deal of rice. Arsenic poisoning is a very serious condition if exposed but it was interesting to find out that once exposed there is truly no safe level. I also found it interesting that toxicity does not pass in breastmilk and the real concern becomes truly when a woman is pregnant due to the permeability of the toxin. The one question I have regarding this article is if the FDA is doing something about this problem, and once they test for arsenic what are the limits they allow? Especially if there is no safe exposure amount.
    Araceli Harris

  5. This is quite an interesting article. I have always known about traces of arsenic being found in rice but not detail. It is very scary to know that the United States has the highest levels of arsenic in its rice crops. Rice is a staple in my family's daily meals. It is even introduced very early on to children. One question I have is if specific types of rice absorb it more than others. My last question is if traces of arsenic can also be found in other type of grains such as wheat, quinoa, etc.
    -Francheska Labrador

    1. Great questions Francheska! Actually in the next article in the blog, he discusses that brown rice tends to have more arsenic in it than white rice, but that doesn't mean it outweighs the health benefits of choosing brown rice over white. According to Consumer Reports, gluten-free grains (millet, grits, etc) have inconsequential amounts of arsenic, while barley which has gluten also has almost no arsenic in it. Quinoa has average amounts of arsenic, although some samples tested had higher than average levels. I think the best thing to take away is that any crop can have arsenic it it so it’s always best to cook them before consumption.

    2. Hi Francheska,

      I found this website which may be helpful in answering your question. http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/Metals/ucm280202.htm
      The website contains very insightful information about how there are several different types of plants, not just grains, which contain arsenic. There are even certain types of seafood which contain higher levels of a more organic, but less toxic, arsenic. For some reason, the way rice grows using the soil and dirt it is planted in, the rice readily absorbs more arsenic than most plant which is why there are high level in it than in other types of grains and plants.

    3. Carolien Prine COH 608

  6. It’s interesting to find out that the U.S. produces rice that are contaminated with Arsenic; which the general public including myself, would think that toxins won’t be in food because the EPA regulates such products. But then again, reading that there is currently no U.S. regulation that exists for monitoring arsenic in food is somewhat disappointing to me. Even compared to other countries the U.S. still stands out as having the highest level of Arsenic in their rice. Arsenic as stated in the article enters the environment through pesticide spraying that contained Arsenic in the past; it is interesting that still today Arsenic is in the fields because of being an element there for not being able to break down. An important question to ask is what has the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), have done so far to better understand the cause and find ways to manage the increasing amount of Arsenic in rice fields that are contaminating our food?

  7. This particular article is very interesting! I did not know that U.S. rice has the highest arsenic levels and it does not have U.S. regulations that monitor the contamination. Since arsenic contamination develops some type of physiological complications, will there be a law or act that will reinforce to regulate how U.S. rice should be grow?

  8. An enlightening article about the basic food in the country where I was originally from, the Philippines. The Philippines is one of the countries with the highest consumption of rice worldwide. I grew up eating rice in every meal and it is included in my breakfast, lunch and dinner. After reading the article, I was surprised to have known that rice consists of arsenic. It somehow worried me to know that there is a toxic element in the food that I eat. I was also surprised that the U.S. rice has the highest arsenic level among the rice crops grown around the world. The United States has the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), what have they done about the arsenic in rice to make it safer for consumers?

    1. According to Weise, there are no limits on the amount of allowable arsenic in rice in the U.S. However, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has put arsenic limits in water of 10 parts per billion. The EPA is still negotiating with the Food and Drug Administration to discuss the amount of arsenic to be in rice.

      Elizabeth, W., & USA, T. (n.d). Arsenic in rice raises concern. USA Today.