Why We Need Better Research on Arsenic and Other Toxins in Food
The FDA allows a certain amount of toxins in our food and water supply, but the history of regulation is one of constant reduction in levels
I don't often write about pesticides, plasticizers, heavy metals, or other such potentially toxic substances in food because there usually isn't enough science available to draw firm conclusions about how much of them is OK to consume.
At high concentrations they are demonstrably toxic. But in food and water, they appear in amounts measured as parts per billion (ppb) or trillion, and it is difficult to know how harmful they may be at such levels.
The big question: Is there a threshold for harm or are they unsafe at any level of intake? The history of regulation of such substances is one of constant reduction in levels considered safe.
They derive in large part from industrial processes, and attempting to regulate them confronts large and powerful industries eager to argue that low levels are safe.
Now Consumer Reports has tested samples of juice and finds levels of arsenic higher than allowed in drinking water:
- 10 percent of the samples contained levels of arsenic that exceed EPA drinking-water standards of 10 ppb.
- 25 percent contained levels of lead greater than the FDA's 5 ppb standard for bottled water.
- Most arsenic was inorganic, a form linked to cancer, cardiovascular disease, immune disorders, and type 2 diabetes.
- 35 percent of children age five and younger drink juice in amounts higher than recommended by pediatricians.
- No federal standards exist for amounts of lead and arsenic in juice.
This is a food systems issue. Inorganic arsenic gets into food from soil contaminated with arsenic-containing herbicides and waste from animals and chickens fed arsenic-containing additives.
Consumer Reports says:
- FDA should set a standard for total arsenic in juice at 3 ppb and 5 ppb for lead.
- EPA should lower the 10 ppb drinking-water limit for arsenic.
- Parents should limit juice servings to small children.
What does the FDA have to say?
The Food and Drug Administration has every confidence in the safety of apple juice ... small amounts of arsenic can be found in certain food and beverage products -- including fruit juices and juice concentrates.... There is no evidence of any public health risk from drinking these juices ... FDA has been testing them for years [see the FDA's Q and A].
As if this were not enough to worry about, Food Quality News reports increasing concern about the amount of arsenic in rice, the dangers of such levels for pregnant women, and the need to establish better standards for safe levels of arsenic in foods.
Consumer Reports is especially concerned about a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences linking rice consumption to levels of arsenic in the urine of pregnant women. It notes that children in the U.S. typically are fed rice cereal as their first solid food, making them especially vulnerable to the effects of arsenic.
Arsenic gets into rice in the same way that it gets into apples and grapes, but rice is especially efficient in taking up arsenic from soil.
I see all this as further evidence that agricultural practices are key determinants of public health and that we badly need:
- More and better research on the effects of small amounts of arsenic, lead, pesticides, and other such toxins in food.
- Research on how to remove such toxins from soil.
- Federal safety standards for arsenic in foods and beverages; the Consumer Reports recommendations make sense.
- Regulations that restrict use of arsenic drugs in animal agriculture and of pesticides containing arsenic.
- Restrictions on the amount of juice and rice given to children.
It's great that Consumer Reports is doing this kind of research but federal agencies should be doing a lot more of it too.
Image: David Mzareulyan/Shutterstock.
This post also appears on Food Politics, an Atlantic partner site.