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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 continued...

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.

Advice About Rice

“We don’t want to stop people from eating rice, because a rice-based, sort-of Asian diet is much better for your overall health than, say, eating McDonald’s and fries every day,” says Punshon, who has tested different varieties of rice for arsenic.

She says people should be choosy about the kinds of rice they eat, though, and make sure it’s not the only grain in their diet.

Rice grown in the United States, for example, has been shown to have higher arsenic levels than jasmine or basmati rice grown in Thailand or India.

Her studies have found that brown rice contains higher levels of arsenic than white rice, because arsenic concentrates in the outer layer of rice bran.

“What really worries me is that the gluten-free movement is using a lot of rice, specifically brown rice,” Punshon says. Brown rice turns up in a lot of products like cereal, rice syrup, baking mixes, and crackers.

“If you replace all the grains in your diet with brown rice, you’re putting yourself in a very unique exposure window” for arsenic, she says.

Other experts agree that a balanced approach is key.

“We don’t want to scare people off rice,” Punshon says. “It’s still a healthy food.”

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