Arsenic and Rice: Concerning Levels of Known Human Carcinogen Found In More Than 200 Rice Products

On September 19, the magazine Consumer Reports  released a report  on independent laboratory tests that found inorganic arsenic – a known carcinogen – in some 200 rice products purchased in grocery stores across the United States. The admitted point was to pressure the U.S. Food and Drug Administration into setting a safety standard for arsenic in the American food supply, something the FDA has been embarrassingly reluctant to do.

According to a sobering report released to “Good Morning America” by Consumer Reports magazine, rice eaten just once a day can drive arsenic levels in the human body up 44 percent. Rice eaten twice a day can lead to a 70 percent increase in arsenic.

In a neatly choreographed response, the FDA promptly released its own sample results from – yes – some 200 rice products which turned up a comparable amount of inorganic arsenic in the selected foods, which ranged from baby cereal to rice cakes to bagged rice. As The Washington Post reported, the agency also reiterated that it is still testing another 1,000 rice samples and plans to release a more complete report by the end of the year.

Rice is a staple and popular food used on a daily basis throughout the world. Rice can be made into cereals, syrups, powders and more and this is where the concern lies.  There has been some heavy controversy around the world about rice and various rice products, including those produced from organic rice , being contaminated with high levels of Arsenic.  But by far the biggest concern is that many baby and toddler food products and formulas that are manufactured using brown rice and rice bran syrup,  both which contain higher than considered safe levels of arsenic, with rice syrup having the very highest level.

Governments throughout the world are concerned about babies and children under the 4-5 year old age bracket, who consume, often on a daily basis, a lot of rice products e.g baby rice cereals, rice syrup sweetened infant formulas and rice milks as a substitute for cows and soy milks.

For older children and adults it is believed that the amount of arsenic in rice does not pose as big of a health risk, due to a higher body weight in relation to the amount of arsenic consumed.  But for babies and children they are much smaller, so the ratio of arsenic intake to body weight works our far greater. Also, as nowadays many youngsters are intolerant to cows milk and soy products, they are therefore consuming much larger quantities of rice milk and other rice products than an adult generally would. I too,  had been giving my young children a glass of organic rice milk each day, and plenty of my organic puffed rice, chia seed, slice, so you can imagine that I took investigating and writing about this issue of arsenic in rice very seriously.

Understanding Arsenic-

Arsenic is found naturally in many food products and in our water, as it naturally occurs in rocks and sediment, this type of arsenic is called ‘organic arsenic’ and to date, scientist do not believe that this type of arsenic poses a major problem to our health.  It  is the ‘inorganic arsenic’ which is formed from coal burning, copper smelting and the processing of mineral ores, that is the major and very serious problem. It seems we humans have once again inadvertently poisoned ourselves.  Inorganic arsenic is also a common component in pesticides and fungicides, wood treatment chemicals, fire retardants and more. This type of inorganic arsenic that we produce, use and then wash away, remains in our soils, rivers and oceans and therefore as rice is grown in water-logged rice paddies and is especially adept at retaining arsenic, the world now has this problem on its hands.

The researchers also found geographical distinctions in arsenic levels, with white rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas, containing higher levels than rice samples from other parts of the country. Those four states account for 76 percent of domestic rice produced.

Inorganic arsenic is considered a level one carcinogen, linked to lung and bladder cancer. On September 19, the FDA will announce it has concerns about rice and arsenic and is studying the issue, but in the meantime recommends a varied diet. Consumer Reports calls for more.

Rice contains more arsenic than other grains experts say, because it is grown while submerged in water. Arsenic does appear naturally in the earth, but Consumer Report says levels have been increased by use of arsenic-laced fertilizer.

Consumer Reports scientists explain that arsenic is fed to chickens, turkey, and pigs, and their manure is used as fertilizer for rice and other crops.

“All of those uses introduce arsenic into our environment, into our food supply, and we essentially are doing a lot of things to ourselves that deliberately introduce arsenic into food supply,” Rangan said.

The National Chicken Council, however, released a statement following this morning’s broadcast “strongly condemning these insinuations.”

“Chickens in the United States produced for meat are not given arsenic as an additive in chicken feed,” said Tom Super, NCC vice president of communications. “Some flocks used to be given feed that contained a product called Roxarsone, which included safe levels of organic arsenic. Even though the science shows that such low levels of arsenic do not harm chickens or the people eating them, this product was removed from the market last year, it is no longer manufactured and it is no longer used in raising chickens in the United States. No other products containing any amount of arsenic are used in chicken production.”

In a response provided to ABC News, Consumer Reports said: “There are around 100 arsenic-containing drug formulations currently approved for use in healthy chickens to promote growth, improve pigmentation, and prevent disease, including Roxarsone, which Pfizer voluntarily and temporarily suspended sales of in July of 2011. There are also other arsenic containing drugs approved for use in food animal production including Nitrasone which is currently on Pfizer’s website. If the Chicken industry’s current stance is that arsenic containing drugs are not required to grow chickens for meat, then they should be more than willing to support our position on a complete ban on the use of arsenical drugs in poultry production.”

In addition, within any given brand, brown rice had more arsenic than white, although some individual brown rice samples were lower in arsenic compared to some white rice samples, possibly due to agricultural practices or where they were grown.

Is there anything else the individual consumer can do? Consumer Reports suggests that you cook rice the Asian way–rinse first and then cook with six cups of water to one cup of rice–and pour the excess water off at the end. Research suggests that this can remove some 30 percent of inorganic arsenic. In addition, kids under 6 shouldn’t drink more than 4 to 6 ounces of apple or grape juice a day. Consumer Reports tests published this past January showed that they can contain elevated arsenic as well.

Arsenic is a serious health concern. Given what we learning about arsenic’s role in contributing to cancer and other serious health problems, the government needs to regulate it in food. This includes setting standards and banning the practices that persistently deliver arsenic into our food and water supply.