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Arsenic in Food: FAQ

How arsenic gets into foods, and what it means for you.

What are the potential health consequences? continued...

“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.”

Is organic juice/rice/other foods any better, in terms of arsenic risk?

Since arsenic persists in the soil for years, organically grown produce isn’t any safer than conventionally grown food, Duxbury says.

Is arsenic tested for in foods?

The FDA tests for arsenic in some foods through a program that looks for harmful substances in food. There is no standard for arsenic in foods, and the FDA says that when it finds inorganic arsenic -- the toxic kind -- it considers those findings on a case-by-case basis and takes regulatory action where necessary.

In September, the FDA said it was considering setting a standard for fruit juice.

What are the signs that someone may have gotten too much arsenic from their diet?

Chronic exposure to arsenic has very few symptoms, especially at the low levels seen in Western countries.

Long-term exposure to arsenic from water is known to cause skin discoloration that looks like freckles or small moles on the hands, feet, or trunk.

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