Nov. 30, 2011 -- Ten percent of store-bought apple and grape juice samples have more arsenic -- and 25% have more lead -- than the Environmental Protection Agency allows in bottled water, a Consumer Reports study finds.
Those total arsenic levels are well below the FDA's current "level of concern" that prompts further tests. But the consumer advocacy group says the federal agency should be more worried.
A Consumer Reports poll shows that over a third of kids age 5 years and younger drink more apple juice (over 6 ounces or one juice box a day) than pediatricians recommend. Children are more sensitive to arsenic poisoning than are adults. And a lot of them drink at least 16 ounces a day, potentially exposing them to high levels of arsenic.
Moreover, a scientific survey commissioned by Consumer Reports -- using CDC survey data -- found that people who reported drinking apple juice or grape juice have about 20% higher levels of arsenic in the urine than those who didn't drink juice.
"We're concerned about the potential risks of exposure to these toxins, especially for children who are particularly vulnerable because of their small body size and the amount of juice they regularly consume," Urvashi Rangan, PhD, director of safety and sustainability for Consumer Reports, says in a news release.
Arsenic has been used as a poison since ancient times. Just a postage-stamp size bit of inorganic arsenic is lethal.
FDA: High Arsenic Levels in Some Juice Samples
The FDA last week reported that since 2005 it has tested 160 apple-juice samples for arsenic. The FDA findings were similar to those of Consumer Reports -- except that a few of the samples tested by the FDA had much higher arsenic levels.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets a standard of 10 parts per billion (ppb) of total arsenic in drinking water. But that's for "long-term, chronic exposure to arsenic in drinking water," according to the EPA. According to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, drinking water generally contains about 2 ppb of arsenic, although some areas have considerably higher levels.
Total arsenic isn't the point, however. Organic arsenic isn't currently considered dangerous. But inorganic arsenic is deadly -- and Consumer Reports says that most of the arsenic in apple and grape juice is inorganic.
How much inorganic arsenic is a problem? The FDA currently worries about 23 ppb. But Consumer Reports says the cutoff should be much lower: 3 ppb for arsenic and 5 ppb for lead.
Can juice be made that safe? Apparently so. Over 40% of the juice tested by Consumer Reports had less than 3 ppb of arsenic and less than 5 ppb of lead.
In a Nov. 21 letter to consumer groups that had urged the FDA to set safety limits for arsenic in apple juice, the FDA hinted that it's getting ready to take action.
"We are seriously considering setting guidance or other level for inorganic arsenic in apple juice and are collecting all relevant information to evaluate and determine an appropriate level," wrote Michael M. Landa, acting director of the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
What "guidance or other level" means is hard to know. The FDA has the authority to make a formal rule setting an absolute tolerance level for heavy metals. But making such a rule is a lengthy process, and one that FDA almost never uses for chemicals.
The Juice Products Association says "juice is safe for consumers of all ages."
In a statement issued in response to the Consumer Reports article, the industry group said: "The juice industry adheres to FDA guidelines and juice products sold in the U.S. and will continue to proactively meet or exceed the federal standards."
Arsenic in Rice, Other Foods
Arsenic in apple juice isn't the only issue. It's also found in chicken, rice, and, according to a June report at a scientific conference, in brand-name baby foods.
According to a 2004 study cited by Consumer Reports, arsenic was found most often in baby foods containing sweet potatoes, carrots, green beans, and peaches.
Rice is also particularly good at soaking up the inorganic, poisonous form of arsenic.
"U.S. rice has among the highest average inorganic arsenic levels in the world -- almost three times higher than levels in Basmati rice imported from low-arsenic areas of Nepal, India, and Pakistan," Consumer Reports says.
Rice from the southeastern U.S. is particularly likely to be contaminated, according to an expert cited by Consumer Reports. But package labels rarely identify the source of the rice inside.
Reducing Arsenic Risk
Here is advice from Consumer Reports for reducing arsenic risk:
- Test your water if you get it from a well or spring. Municipal water systems already test water for arsenic.
- Limit how much juice your kids drink. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says infants under the age of 6 months should not drink fruit juice at all. Up to age 6, kids should drink less than 4 to 6 ounces a day. And those over age 6 should drink no more than 8 to 12 ounces of juice a day.
- Consider organic chicken. Organic chicken is never given feed laced with arsenic, a common poultry practice. However, organic standards for juice and other foods isn't so clear, as organic fruits may come from orchards with arsenic in the soil.
- Get tested. If you're worried, ask your doctor to test you or your child for arsenic.
The Consumer Reports report on arsenic in juice was published online on Nov. 30 and will appear in the January issue of the magazine.