Arsenic in Food: FAQ
How arsenic gets into foods, and what it means for you.
Are there particular foods that it’s in? continued...
Tracy Punshon, PhD, a research assistant professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., has X-rayed rice grains to see where they store arsenic.
She found that arsenic concentrates in the part of the grain called the germ, which is removed to make white rice. That means brown rice has higher concentrations of arsenic that white rice.
Studies by Scottish researchers have found higher levels of arsenic in rice grown in the U.S. than in basmati or jasmine rice from Thailand or India.
The highest levels of arsenic in U.S.-grown rice came from Southern states. The lowest levels were detected in rice grown in California.
Seafood also has high levels of arsenic, though most experts believe the form of arsenic in seafood to be nontoxic. Calcium supplements made from seafood may also contain high amounts of arsenic.
What are the potential health consequences?
At very high levels, arsenic can be fatal. At lower levels, arsenic can cause nausea and vomiting and decrease the amount of red and white blood cells produced by the body. It also causes abnormal heart rhythms, may damage blood vessels, and causes a pins and needles sensation in the hands and feet.
However, far less is understood about what happens to people when they are exposed to low levels of arsenic over a long period of time.
“This is a relatively new area of research,” says arsenic expert Ana Navas-Acien, MD, PhD.
It’s clear that arsenic is associated with higher rates of skin, bladder, and lung cancers, says Navas-Acien, an assistant professor of environmental health sciences and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.
“When a substance is a carcinogen, it’s generally a carcinogen through the whole range of exposure levels,” she says.
At lower levels, it probably causes fewer cases of cancer, though the risk is still there.
Beyond cancer, she says, more evidence suggests that low to moderate levels of exposure -- just about the U.S. standard for drinking water of 10 parts per billion -- may cause cardiovascular disease.
Chronic arsenic exposure may also affect the lungs, leading to breathing problems.
In children, Navas-Acien says emerging evidence suggests that arsenic may cause problems with brain development.
Arsenic may also contribute to problems with pregnancy like miscarriages and low birth weight.
Should I stop drinking juice, or should my kids?
People shouldn’t shun the juice aisle, says Richard W. Stahlhut, MD, MPH, a toxicologist at the University of Rochester in New York.
But it’s probably not a bad idea to cut back if you or your kids drink a lot of juice, Stahlhut says, or to be careful about the kinds of juice that you drink. “Anytime you can easily avoid something, avoid it,” he says, but don’t drive yourself crazy.
“You can’t be perfect. If the goal is perfection, you’re doomed,” Stahlhut says. “The rest of us are getting exposed.”