How Much Arsenic in Rice is Safe? Cancer Risk

arsenic in rice
arsenic in rice

For irresponsible commercial interests to have contaminated the world’s rice supply with arsenic is beyond comprehension!

But there is a silver lining. We can view arsenic in rice as a reason to follow Dr. Will Bulsiewicz’s advice – and diversify our plant-based diet!  We’d not only be avoiding arsenic; we’d be gifting our bodies with an abundance of nutrients they can’t get anywhere else! 

Take other whole cereal grains.  When minimally processed, they’re terrific sources of gut-healing fiber. And they don’t share rice’s talent for absorbing heavy metals from water or soil.

For example, this study headed by researchers at the University of Aberdeen’s School of Biological Sciences revealed rice can absorb ten times more arsenic than wheat or barley! 

And between 2106 and 2017, the Healthy Babies, Bright Futures non-profit tested 105 kinds of infant cereals from nine different manufacturers, purchased in 13 different U.S. cities.

Their eye-opening finding on how much of a difference avoiding arsenic in rice can make?

“… non-rice and multi-grain varieties on grocery shelves nationwide – including oatmeal, corn, barley, quinoa, and others – contain 84 percent less arsenic than leading brands of infant rice cereal, on average.”

avoiding arsenic
Buckwheat and millet, two arsenic- and gluten-free rice alternatives.

To ensure they were available and affordable for all parents wanting to limit their babies’ arsenic exposure, HBBF obtained the cereals from:

  • baby stores
  • supermarkets
  • superstores

 

and dollar stores.

These nutritious whole grains make excellent rice alternatives for people of all ages.

So should we just stop eating rice?

Dr. Greger’s Thoughts on Arsenic in Rice

In 2017, while HBBF were conducting their cereal tests, Dr. Michael Greger released a 13-video series on the rice/arsenic dilemma.

Avoid any kind of rice grown in arsenic-tainted water to avoid arsenic in rice.

The last video weighed the benefits and drawbacks of brown-rice consumption. Because arsenic builds up in a rice plant’s outer layers (which are stripped off in processing), brown rice contains up to 80 percent more arsenic than white.

In it, Dr. Greger concludes: 

“… my current thinking is… if you really like rice… moderate your risk by cutting down, choosing lower-arsenic varieties, and cooking it in a way to lower exposure even further. But, if you like other whole grains just as much… if you simply don’t care either way… I’d choose the lower-arsenic option.”

Currently, however, we can’t count on our health and governmental agencies for consistent guidance on avoiding arsenic in rice.

How Much Arsenic In Rice is Safe?

As I mentioned yesterday, official worldwide standards for safe arsenic levels in food and water differ widely. Depending on the agency and arsenic source, they’re set at 5, 10, 100, or 200 ppb.

But is any level acceptable? In this 2015 Environmental Health Perspectives article, science writer Charles W. Smith observed:   

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently designates arsenic as a non-threshold carcinogen, meaning that any dose, no matter how small, carries some cancer risk. Some scientists don’t agree—they say doses below a certain threshold won’t cause cancer, a debate that has yet to be resolved.”

That same year, a team of U.S. researchers headed by Pui Y. Lai, MD of the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Department of Pediatrics reviewed 68 studies on the health impact of arsenic in rice.

They concluded:

“…[A] consumption rate of 2.5 servings a day could pose an estimated lifetime excess cancer risk at or above 1 case in 300 people, by comparison with the current water MCL.” ( MCL refers to the EPA’s 10 ppb maximum contaminant level for arsenic in water.)

If their finding is accurate, it could mean millions of cancer cases among people consuming rice as their primary dietary staple.

Arsenic in Rice and Expectant Mothers

At the lower end of consumption, this 2017 meta-analysis of nearly 70 studies from Dartmouth’s Department of Epidemiology had unfortunate news for expectant mothers:

“An increase of 1/4 cooked rice cups/day during pregnancy was associated with a 16.9% increase in infants toenail [arsenic] concentration.”

Arsenic may pass through the placental barrier and accumulate in a newborn’s toenails.

They continue:

“Exposure to arsenic during pregnancy and early childhood is of particular concern due to the vulnerability of the fetus, infants, and young children to environmental contaminants. There is some evidence that exposure [arsenic] early in life may impact growth and health throughout the lifespan.”

So just 1/4 cup of rice a day may be too much for vulnerable populations.

This report from Dartmouth’s Center for the Environmental Health Sciences’ Department of Microbiology and Immunology stressed the importance of avoiding arsenic among expectant mothers even more.

They suggest that children born to U. S. mothers drinking water with an arsenic level of only 5 ppb had a greater risk of giving birth to infants with:

  • low birth weight
  • lower average time to delivery
  • reduced newborn length
  • Increased respiratory tract infections

 

and, in the state of Maine, a “… 5–6 point reduction in IQ.”

Consumer Reports‘ Points System for Avoiding Arsenic in Rice

The 2012 Consumer Reports article pointed to a Dartmouth study indicating that consuming about ½-cup of rice a day led to a “significant increase in urinary arsenic levels.

CR compared the effects of arsenic in rice to those of “drinking a liter of water containing the federal maximum of 10 ppb arsenic.”

Two years later, CR followed up by providing a “rice points system” which recommended no more than two weekly 1/4 cup servings (before cooking) of rice.

However, they allowed that much only if all other rice were off the menu. Consuming any rice milk, rice cereal, or rice-based snacks on top of the 1/4 cup servings would exceed their “safe” limit.

Beyond the CR standard are other factors we’ll cover tomorrow.

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