Arsenic, the go-to poison of old-timey murderous spouses and hitmen, is suddenly all around us.
This fall, Dr. Oz found it in apple juice. Then (after some drama), the FDA agreed there was cause for concern. Next, Consumer Reports added grape juice to the list. And just this month, arsenic turned up in rice. There currently aren’t any government guidelines specifically aimed at arsenic in juices but now they’re seriously being considered.
This all begs multiple questions: What other foods containing arsenic are we ingesting (or feeding our kids), where is it coming from, and what, if anything, should we stop eating?
A Deeper Problem
Arsenic is an odorless, tasteless metalloid element that’s used in pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and wood preservers. Aaron Barchowsky, Ph.D., an environmental health professor at University of Pittsburg and a member of the Society of Toxicology says chronic, high-level exposure to arsenic in food or water is linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease and some cancers. There’s no consensus on whether low levels of arsenic are eventually hazardous, especially to children.
To make matters confusing there are two types of arsenic: organic and inorganic. Inorganic arsenic is the arsenic element itself. Naturally occurring in the Earth’s crust, it is often found in water or soil. Organic arsenic is arsenic that has been chemically modified to contain carbon and hydrogen, and is also naturally occurring. When found in food, it passes through your body quickly without harm. In food and water sources, the inorganic kind is considered the troublemaker—and it’s what caused the concern over both the Consumer Report and FDA juice samples.
The inorganic form of the element typically makes its way into apple juice through contaminated water added in processing. (It’s the additional water that pumps a lot more arsenic into juice compared to whole, fresh fruit.)
Most arsenic-based pesticides (though not fertilizers) have been banned in this country but residue sticks around in the environment for decades. The source can be a problem too: The Northeast and Southwest regions of the U.S. have higher arsenic levels than do other regions of the country, excluding other pockets of high exposure, such as Michigan and Oregon.
Also, the Food Institute reports that 83 percent of the 400 million gallons of apple juice that Americans consume each year is from concentrate shipped from China, a country that still uses arsenic-based pesticides in some regions, and has high levels of arsenic in the soil in some apple-growing areas.
One batch of final apple juice you pluck off the grocery store shelf can contain concentrate from multiple countries, making apple juice a "mystery meat" of sorts. Of course, foreign concentrate is not necessarily worse than concentrate from the U.S., so to protect consumers, all apple juice—imported and domestic—needs to be tested continually.
Apple juice may be the tip of the iceberg. According to Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., the director of the Consumer Safety and Sustainability Group for “Consumer Reports,” rice is potentially problematic because it’s a crop that’s especially adept at siphoning arsenic from both the soil and groundwater. In some regions, it’s grown in old cotton fields where residue from pesticides and fertilizers can linger for decades. “If there are high levels of arsenic present, rice is very happy to take it up,” she says.
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