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Arsenic in Rice - Should We be Concerned?

Arsenic in Rice - Should We be Concerned?

Hardly a week goes by without some type of warning or health scare regarding what "is or isn't" in our food. Reports regarding arsenic in rice the past few years have raised concerns in health-conscious individuals and have given low-carb followers yet another reason to vilify whole grains. Because whole grains (including rice) are an excellence source of vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber, should we stop consuming rice because of the possible arsenic content? Should we be concerned? Is arsenic found only in rice, or how else can we be exposed?

What is Arsenic and Where is it Found?

Arsenic is a ubiquitous naturally occurring element present in the earth's crust. It occurs in two main forms, organic and inorganic compounds. We can be exposed to both types due to "erosion of arsenic-containing rocks, volcanic eruptions, and contamination from mining and smelting ores" and through food production and farming practices which involves the use of fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and feeding animals arsenic-containing food. The United States is the world's top user of inorganic arsenic and approximately "1.6 million tons have been used for agricultural and industrial purposes" since 1910.

Arsenic is found naturally in the air, water, soil, wind-blown dust, and some foods. Arsenic levels vary depending on weather conditions, location, and industrial activity in the area. It can never be destroyed and is nearly impossible to avoid. Therefore, everyone is exposed to it just by eating food, drinking water, or breathing air.

Arsenic in Drinking Water

"Groundwater contamination by arsenic is a serious threat to mankind all over the world." Irrigation and drinking water can contain high levels of arsenic in some areas of the United States due to high levels of arsenic in the rock. Arsenic levels in aquifers and private water wells vary widely throughout the United States. People with private wells may face greater risks than those on public systems since unregulated wells can deliver toxic doses to their residents. Hazardous waste sites can contain large quantities of arsenic that can contaminate the surrounding soil, air or water. Agricultural areas that use arsenic containing insecticides and herbicides on their crops can also contain high levels which can affect the water supply.

Arsenic in Wine and Apple Juice

Arsenic in wine made recent headline news. Nearly 25% of wines tested contained high levels of arsenic. Investigations have also discovered significant levels of arsenic in grape and apple juice. A Consumer Reports investigation revealed that roughly 10 percent of the juice samples "had total arsenic levels that exceeded federal drinking-water standards."

Arsenic in Animal Products, Tobacco, Pharmaceuticals, etc.

Other products that contribute to arsenic exposure include milk, dairy products, beef, pork, poultry, as well as fish, shellfish, and hijiki seaweed. Some pharmaceuticals and homeopathic remedies contain arsenic, as well as sheep dips, leather preservatives and poison baits.

Arsenic in Wood Preservatives and Other Industrial Applications

The majority of arsenic produced has been used as a wood preservative, especially on pressure-treated wood. Children who eat soil or play on treated wood structures, picnic tables and decks may be exposed. Arsenic can also be found on the hands, clothing, skin, hair, tools and other objects of those that work in fertilizer, glass, pesticide, wood treating, or copper/lead smelting Arsenic contaminationSize400This illustration shows where arsenic is found and how it is recycled back into the environment.industries. Contamination of personal vehicles, home and other locations can easily occur. Dust or dirt containing arsenic can stay in the air for a long time, and travel long distances. Click here for more information.

Furthermore, "Arsenic is used industrially as an alloying agent, as well as in the processing of glass, pigments, textiles, paper, metal adhesives, and ammunition. Arsenic is also used in the hide tanning process. People who smoke tobacco can also be exposed to the natural inorganic arsenic content of tobacco because tobacco plants essentially take up arsenic naturally present in the soil." Lead-acid batteries for automobiles are the greatest use of arsenic in alloys. Arsenic is also released into the environment through the discharge of industrial waste in coal-fired power plants and incinerators, mining, smelting, combustion of fossil fuels, and the drilling of wells.

Health Concerns

"If you are exposed to arsenic, many factors will determine whether you will be harmed. These factors include the dose (how much), the duration (how long), and how you come in contact with it. You must also consider any other chemicals you are exposed to and your age, sex, diet, family traits, lifestyle, and state of health."

As reported by Dr. Joel Fuhrman, both forms of arsenic are considered a public health concern. Arsenic is well recognized as a human carcinogen and chronic exposure (via inhalation or from high-arsenic drinking water) is a known cause of skin, lung, and bladder cancer and is also associated with other cancers such as kidney, liver, and prostate. Studies have also demonstrated associations with noncancerous conditions, such as diabetes, heart and lung diseases, immunological effects, and impaired cognitive function."

Acute exposure can result in vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea, followed by numbness and tingling of the extremities, muscle cramping, and in extreme cases, death.

Chronic exposure my produce skin, respiratory, pulmonary, gastrointestinal, hematological, liver, kidney, neurological, developmental, reproductive, carcinogenic, immunologic, and mutagenetic effects. More conditions include decreased production of red and white blood cells (which may cause fatigue), abnormal heart rhythm, and blood-vessel damage resulting in bruising. Long-term exposure to arsenic in children may result in lower IQ scores. Click here for more information. Most arsenic leaves the body within a few days; however health concerns arise when an individual is exposed to high levels over an extended period of time.

Arsenic in Rice

Although all plants are capable of absorbing some arsenic, rice absorbs more than other grains due to how it's grown. Water-logged soils provide favorable conditions that allow more arsenic to be absorbed, especially in areas where soil concentrations are the highest. Rice grown in Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Missouri contains higher levels of arsenic due to arsenic-based pesticides that were once used on cotton fields and orchards. Although these pesticides were banned in 1988, arsenic residue remains in the soil. Because plants can absorb arsenic from both the soil and water, arsenic is found in both conventional and organic farming practices. For a complete list of rice tested by the USDA, click here and here.

How to Minimize Your Exposure to Arsenic in Rice

Dr. Michael Greger - Which Brands & Sources of Rice Have the Least Arsenic?

Consumer Reports - Arsenic levels in California rice were 41 percent lower than levels in rice from the south-central U.S. Rice from Egypt has the lowest levels of all. Basmati rice imported from areas of Nepal, India, and Pakistan has low levels.

Dr. Joel Fuhrman - "Select whole grain rice grown in areas with low arsenic levels. Consumer Reports found that brown basmati rice from California, India or Pakistan has about a third of the inorganic arsenic as compared to brown rice from other regions and would be the best choice. Rice grown in Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana, had the highest arsenic levels. Check the company's websites. Some rice growers conduct independent testing for arsenic levels in their rice and post the results. There are also companies that harvest wild-growing rice from northern Wisconsin and Canada without the use of commercial fertilizers. Keep in mind that organically-farmed rice may mean there is less pesticide use, but does not necessarily mean there are lower arsenic levels. Rinse rice before cooking. Rinsing rice reduces arsenic content. Rinse rice until the water becomes clear. Research has shown that the amount of arsenic in rice can be reduced by approximately 40 percent if the rice is boiled in a large volume of water."

Jeff Novick - "Look for companies that have documented low levels of arsenic through independent testing. We can lower our exposure by choosing whole grain basmati rice imported from India and Pakistan and Jasmine rice from Thailand which have been shown to contain the least arsenic. When choosing imported rice, choose imported rice from Thailand, India and China. When preparing rice, use a ratio of 6 cups water to 1 cup rice for cooking (draining the excess water afterward). If you are concerned with arsenic exposure, avoid calorie dense, concentrated and processed forms of rice and products made with or from these items, as this can concentrate the arsenic. This includes: rice flour and products made from it (cakes, crackers, dry cereals, breads, tortilla’s etc. - puffed rice - rice syrup - rice milk. Check your water supply as drinking water can also be a source of arsenic. Since you will be washing and cooking your rice in water, make sure your water is safe and if not, use purified water for drinking and cooking. To find a certified lab to test your water for arsenic, contact your local health department or call the federal Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791. Vary your rice consumption with other whole grains such as quinoa, barley, millet, buckwheat."

The Majority of Arsenic in the Food Supply Comes from Poultry Products

Without a doubt, media coverage was quick to point out that some rice contains arsenic while they minimized the fact that the majority of arsenic (75%) in the American diet comes from animal products - beef, dairy products, pork, hot dogs, eggs, and especially poultry. Poultry products from Perdue was found to be the most contaminated. Dr. Michael Greger points out that "One bucket of American fast food ChickensInACageSize400Ground-up poultry feathers and arsenic are fed back to chickens and other livestock.chicken may exceed the EPA safety limit for arsenic in a glass of drinking water by 2,000%." Although not approved in other countries, the FDA approved arsenic as an additive to poultry feed to increase the rate of weight gain, prevent disease, control parasites and lower the levels of feed required. "Two million pounds of arsenic compounds are fed to chickens every year in the United States, and about 85 tons fed to pigs. When you cram tens of thousands of birds into filthy football field-sized sheds to lie beak to beak in their own waste they become so heavily infested with internal parasites that adding arsenic to the feed to poison the bugs can result in a dramatic increase in growth rates. It's also approved for use to 'improve pigmentation.' Arsenic can give the carcass a pinkish tinge, which consumers prefer." For over 70 years, "arsenic-containing poultry drugs have been deliberately administered to animals intended for human consumption." A list of the arsenic-containing feed additives approved by the FDA can be seen here. As the industry profits go up, so does the incidence of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, neuropathy and neurocognitive deficits in children. Click here and here to see the arsenic content in fast food chicken products. 

Likewise, poultry manure that contains arsenic is released into the environment, contaminating the air and soil where rice may be grown. As a result, rice with the highest levels of arsenic originates from the leading poultry producing states. Several lawsuits from consumer groups have petitioned for the removal of arsenic-containing drugs fed to poultry.

Equally important, "Researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health found levels of arsenic in chicken feather meal up to 100 times of that found in apple juice and 10 times higher in rice. Feather meal is made from the billion pounds of feathers plucked from chicken carcasses annually (sometimes with heads, guts, manure, and feet thrown in to increase protein and mineral content) and is fed to farmed fish, pigs, poultry, and cattle as well as used to fertilize both conventional and organic crops."

Arsenic-based feed additives continue to be legal in the United States although they have been banned in Europe for over a decade. In regards to the USDA estimate of poultry arsenic levels in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration concluded, "Chicken consumption may contribute significant amounts of arsenic to total arsenic exposure of the U.S. population….Levels of arsenic in chicken are so high that other sources may have to be monitored carefully to prevent undue toxic exposure among the population."

As stated in a Consumers Report investigation, "The manure of treated animals ends up containing arsenic too. It can also be used to fertilize food crops, which effectively introduces arsenic back into the food supply." When arsenic containing manure is turned into fertilizer pellets for home use, it increases opportunities for additional exposure.


Dr. John McDougall writes in his article Putting Pollution In Perspective, "Despite arsenic's known presence in these other foods, rice has become the focus of the media's attention. In reality, this basic element is unavoidable because it is naturally distributed throughout the soils and waters of our planet. Industries, especially those in mining and coal burning, and the uses in animal feed, pesticides, and wood preservatives, have made matters much worse by polluting our entire environment. Choose a cleaner rice - In your pursuit of less arsenic in your rice, rice purchased from California growers has about half the arsenic as rice produced in Louisiana. Use cleaner water - Unregulated private wells worldwide, including in the US, are often found to deliver toxic doses of arsenic to residents. One of the most important steps people can take to avoid chronic arsenic poisoning is to verify the quality of their drinking water. Laboratory testing can do this. Also consumers should consider using a water filter or distiller to purify their water supply. People on the McDougall Diet who are worried about arsenic in rice can simply choose to eat other starches instead, such as barley, corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and wheat products." Dr. McDougall sums it up by saying "We must not be distracted from the MAJOR CAUSES OF FOOD POISONING, [which are] animal foods and vegetable oils."

For additional information, click on the following links:

(1) What's in Your Holiday Turkey Besides Stuffing?

(2) Consumer Reports - List of rice products

(3) How Much Arsenic is in Your Rice?

(4) Reducing Arsenic in Chicken and Rice

(5) Where is Arsenic Found?

(6) Using Poultry Manure in Organic Farming

(7) Agency for Toxic Substances

(8) Exposure and Health Effects

(9) Arsenic - World Health Organization

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