Arsenic Alarm: Rice Packs an Unwanted Ingredient

A new study shows rice eaters are at a greater risk for arsenic exposure.
Eat rice? You may be downing arsenic as well. (FotoosVanRubin/Creative Commons)
Dec 7, 2011
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

The national average of rice consumption in the U.S. is just half a cup per person per day. Compared to Asian countries, where the average consumption is four times as high, the amount seems piddling. But according to a new report, packed in that tiny dose of grains could be an insidious ingredient: arsenic.

Scientists conducting research on unregulated well water in New Hampshire happened across the finding while testing 229 pregnant women for arsenic in their urine. As expected, they discovered that women drinking from the wells excreted higher levels of arsenic—but women who reported eating rice also had higher levels.

Arsenic is a substance that occurs naturally in soils worldwide, but it can also be caused by human activity, such as pesticide application. It exists in both organic and inorganic forms. Combined with other elements such as oxygen, chlorine, and sulfur, arsenic is considered inorganic; its threat to health is not yet known. Arsenic combined with carbon and hydrogen is organic arsenic, which is a Class One human carcinogen.

According to USA Today, the women who reported eating half a cup of rice in the two days prior to urine tests "ingested an amount of arsenic equivalent to drinking four and a quarter cups of water a day containing arsenic at the maximum allowable level set by the [Environmental Protection Agency]." Arsenic limits in water are set at 10 parts per billion by the EPA, but rice has never been regulated for the substance.

Rice draws more arsenic from the soil than other crops because of the way it's grown—in flooded areas which change the soil chemistry, readily releasing arsenic compounds from the soil.

Most rice consumed in the U.S. contains organic arsenic, which is thought to be much safer than its inorganic counterpart. Still, organic arsenic is not in the clear. According to the study, research done in the late 1990s showed that high amounts of organic arsenic caused cancer in rats, reports Fox News.

The new findings have caused enough alarm to prompt researchers to call on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for oversight. But after last week's announcment that arsenic in apple juice is alright, the FDA may not be the line of defense rice eaters are looking for.

Read more at USA Today.

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