Inorganic Arsenic in Rice
The brittle, moderately hard metalloid arsenic has two forms: organic (usually found in shellfish and relatively harmless) and inorganic (severely toxic).
Ingesting a high dose of inorganic arsenic causes death within hours. Long-term, small-dose accumulation wreaks havoc in our bodies as we age. It’s also a top carcinogen.
And a meta-review from Department of Neuroscience researchers at the University of New Mexico concluded that:
“… toxic exposures to [inorganic] arsenic may result in memory loss and emotional instability… Epidemiological studies… have… support[ed] a … correlation between arsenic exposure and neurological and cognitive dysfunction in children…”
Inorganic Arsenic and Children: Consumer Reports Takes on the FDA
Protecting children from arsenic would be much less complicated – if the poison weren’t already contaminating one of the world’s essential plant-based foods.
In November of 2012, Consumer Reports (CR) released the results of tests they’d run on over 200 rice products bought from grocery store shelves. The arsenic levels were so alarming that CR called on the FDA to regulate them.
CR noted that the Environmental Protection Agency assumes any level of inorganic arsenic exposure is not “safe.” The EPA proposed only 5 parts-per-billion (ppb) as safe for drinking water; the Federal limit of 10 ppb doubled that.
On August 5, 2020, eight years after the CR report, the FDA released guidance for inorganic arsenic levels in rice cereals for infants.
They “suggested” that keeping it under 100 parts-per-billion (ppb) was enough!
A Pro-Children Non-Profit Enters the Inorganic Arsenic PPB Debate
On the day the FDA released their guidance, the non-profit alliance Healthy Babies Bright Futures responded:
“100 ppb is still far too high. No amount of arsenic, lead, or other toxic metal is safe for babies.” The organization released this list of leading dietary arsenic sources for infants:
- Rice puff snacks (98 ppb)
- infant rice cereal (85 ppb)
- teething biscuits or rice rusks (64 ppb)
all qualified as “safe” under the FDA’s “guidance.”
One of HBBF’s most significant objections was that the 100 ppb limit “ …played a role in inequality and racial health disparities.”
Their concerns were alarming, to say the least:
- Children with celiac disease often eat rice in place of gluten-containing grains. They ingest 14 times more arsenic than other children, on average.
- National diet surveys show that Hispanic infants and toddlers are 2.5 times more likely to eat rice on a given day than other children.
- Asian Americans eat nearly ten times more rice than the national average.
- Black toddlers are 2 to 3 times as likely to eat arsenic-laden rice snacks.
Organic Arsenic and Rice FAQs
Why is rice contaminated with arsenic?
Rice does not naturally contain inorganic arsenic. As a semi-aquatic plant, it absorbs heavy metals through its outer layer. Rice growing in tainted irrigation water or soil becomes contaminated.
How did arsenic get into the soil and irrigation water?
In the U.S., agriculture, and industry have accounted for most of the inorganic arsenic, according to the 2012 Consumer Reports article claimed:
“The U.S. is the world’s leading user of arsenic… since 1910 about 1.6 million tons have been used for agricultural and industrial purposes… Residues from the decades of use of linger in agricultural soil.”
The rice fields of Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas have the heaviest residues because they once grew cotton regularly sprayed with toxic insecticides.
Factory-farm (CAFO) chicken waste is another of Big-Ag’s lucrative, arsenic-laden products.
Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health tested the inorganic arsenic levels in 258 conventional, antibiotic-free, or organic chicken samples. Sixty-five raw and 78 cooked samples were positive.
The toxin came from disease- and parasite-fighting drugs. With one chicken house holding up to 125,000 broiler chickens, disease and parasitism can quickly run rampant.
Farmers spread the chicken waste on their fields, where it enters the soil, the nearby water, and the irrigated rice.
How long does soil retain arsenic?
A very long time, if this Washington State Department of Health study is correct:
“One estimate of the residence time for arsenic in soil is 9000 years… contaminated soil left at the site must be considered a potential source of exposure throughout this time frame.”
Growing rice actually helps decontaminate the soil, but the inorganic arsenic it absorbs moves into anyone or anything that eats the rice.
How long do our bodies retain arsenic?
The CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) reports that our bodies excrete most arsenic within a few days. But traces of inorganic arsenic stay with us for “several months or even longer.”
Tomorrow, we’ll look at how much rice might be too much.