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Health & Pregnancy

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Eating Rice May Raise Arsenic Levels

Study Finds Higher Arsenic Levels in Pregnant Women Who Eat Rice; Researchers Say That Exposure Could Harm Developing Baby

Chronic Arsenic Exposure and Health

What does that mean for health? Researchers aren’t sure.

“Our study is really about exposure. We’re not studying a health outcome. At least in this report,” says Margaret R. Karagas, PhD, a professor of community and family medicine in epidemiology at Dartmouth Medical School in Lebanon, N.H.

“Whether or not this is a health threat is a really big question,” Bloom says.

Studies have linked high arsenic levels in pregnant women to an increased risk of miscarriage. Exposure to arsenic in the womb has also been associated with lower birth weights in children and an increased risk of infant mortality.

Most of those studies were in developing countries, however, where women had arsenic levels that were 50 to 200 times higher than those seen in this study.

In fact, Bloom says, the levels of arsenic seen in the women in this study are on par with those found in the general U.S. population.

“Obviously, people don’t eat rice and drop dead the next day. You’re looking at probably a chronic effect on health,” says researcher Tracy Punshon, PhD, a research assistant professor in the department of biological sciences at Dartmouth College.

Studies have shown, for example, that people with long-term exposure to arsenic have higher rates of skin, lung, and bladder cancers. Arsenic has also been linked to higher rates of cardiovascular disease.

“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,” Punshon tells WebMD.

She says much larger, longer studies will need to be done before the health effects are better understood.

“We’re frantically studying what this means,” she says.

In the meantime, experts say the findings will be most important to policy makers, who can take steps to help ensure public safety.

"Our findings, along with those of other studies, highlight the need to regulate arsenic in food and in rice,” Karagas says.

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