There’s something about a chemical that’s played a role in countless murders showing up in common foods that gives people a sense of unease.
Arsenic was the weapon of choice for Mary Ann Cotton, a rare female serial killer who poisoned as many as 21 people in and around Durham, England, before she was executed in 1873—20 some years before Jack the Ripper’s far more famous (and far smaller) killing spree in London.
So when the Food and Drug Administration reports that it’s continually finding a potential murder weapon in a food as seemingly innocuous as rice, people have a tendency to freak.
Despite undertaking an ongoing study of arsenic levels in rice and rice-based products, the FDA is doing its best to convince people that panicking is unnecessary. That was the tone it took in 2012 when it published arsenic contamination levels—a tone it took up again when those numbers were updated last week. “FDA scientists have determined that the levels of inorganic arsenic found in the samples are too low to cause immediate health damage,” reads the FDA’s FAQ on the topic.
The actual numbers, however, are higher than the level the Environmental Protection Agency sets for drinking water: 10 parts per billion. The ironic reality for the health-conscious crowd is that instant rice registered the lowest level of contamination, while brown rice contained the most arsenic—160 parts per billion of inorganic arsenic (the more dangerous form of the carcinogen) per serving. That’s 16 times higher than the EPA’s drinking water standard. But science journalist Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner’s Handbook, agrees with the FDA that this it’s no cause for freaking out.
“Consistently what we find in rice, even with high arsenic levels, is it doesn’t drop you dead in the street,” she says. “We know it’s not high enough to cause any kind of acute poisoning unless you sat down with, and I’m making this number up, something like 200 pounds and start sucking it down.”
What’s unclear is the long-term health impact of continued, low-level exposure to arsenic-contaminated foods. That’s really what the FDA is trying to figure out with its research; Blum calls it the most interesting part of what the Administration is doing. The FDA isn’t finished with its long-term study of arsenic-tainted foods, but other research suggests that the results won’t exactly be good news. “If I’m exposing myself at this consistent part per billion level every day,” Blum says, “what all the studies show is that at that level there’s a consistent undermining of good health.” To wit, research conducted at the University of Chicago showed that drinking water that contains 120 parts per billion of arsenic “produced lung damage comparable to decades of smoking tobacco.”
So how is arsenic getting in the rice and why can’t they get it out? The simple answer is that it occurs naturally in both soil and water—and the semi-aquatic nature of the grain gives it the opportunity to pull arsenic up from both readily available sources. “One of the things we need to emphasize is that arsenic is a naturally occurring contaminant, and because it’s in soil and water, it’s going to get into food,” Dr. Suzanne C. Fitzpatrick, senior advisor for toxicology at the FDA’s Center for Food, is quoted at saying on the Administration’s website. “It's not something that we can just pull off the market.” The only consumer advice offered by the FDA is to eat a varied diet.
But what the FDA and the federal government could do is just what the Consumer Union recommended when it released an extensive report on arsenic contamination in rice last year: Establish a standard for arsenic contamination in rice (like it did with apple juice) and work to limit applications of the carcinogen in agriculture—be it in chicken feed or pesticides.