FDA Weighs Federal Standard To Limit Exposure To Arsenic In Rice

Sep 19, 2012
Originally published on September 19, 2012 8:09 pm

Scientists have known for a long time that rice — often babies' first food and the staple of much of the world's diet — is good at absorbing inorganic arsenic from soil during the growing process.

Two separate analyses, one by Consumer Reports and one by the Food and Drug Administration, have raised concerns that we might be getting too much of this known human carcinogen in our diets.

Based on its findings, Consumer Reports is calling on the FDA to set federal standards of arsenic in rice. And the agency is weighing its options.

One of the issues is that there are no federal standards for arsenic in food, although the federal government does impose a 10 parts per billion (ppb) limit for arsenic in drinking water.

Consumer Reports found varying levels of arsenic in more than 200 samples of rice products, from cold cereals like Rice Krispies, where researchers found 85 to 90 ppb, to crackers, to rice-based beverages and infant rice cereals, where traces of arsenic were in the 150-250 ppb range.

"There's no question that one serving of a lot of the rice products that we looked at would give you 50 percent to 90 percent of what you would get from drinking a liter of water at the 10 ppb drinking water limit," explains Urvashi Rangan, director of consumer safety and sustainability at Consumer Reports.

So what's a concerned consumer to do?

Based on the available data, the FDA says consumers don't need to change their consumption of rice and rice products right now.

"We believe it would be premature for the FDA to recommend modifying diets because of arsenic levels until a more thorough analysis is completed," FDA spokesperson Carla Daniels told us in an email.

The USA Rice Federation, which represents growers, says it supports the federal government's effort to look at this issue. But, according to Stacy Fitzgerald-Redd, senior communications director, there is not enough scientific information to form the basis for a standard.

"At this point, we need to gather more scientific evidence in order to determine what the standard should be," she says.

The Rice Federation points out that there is no documented evidence of health problems from exposure to arsenic in U.S.-grown rice.

But this does not negate concerns about long-term exposure to inorganic arsenic. Studies in other countries, including Chile and Argentina, found links between high levels of arsenic in drinking water and lung and bladder cancer.

Researchers at Dartmouth Children's Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Center have begun looking into possible health effects. As my colleague Nancy Shute reported earlier this year, Dartmouth researchers found particularly high amounts of arsenic in brown rice syrup — a sugar substitute used in foods aimed at young children and vegans.

So, as the FDA suggests, don't stop eating rice or rice-based products. It may be wise to mix up your diet, though, and if you're concerned, you can change the way you cook rice.

Consumer Reports says you may be able to cut exposure to inorganic arsenic by using LOTS of water when you cook it. It recommends six parts water to one part rice, and draining the excess water off.

The Environmental Working Group suggests trying different grains and introducing babies to foods like sweet potatoes and squash instead of rice cereals.

Some governments are going even further. In the United Kingdom, the parents of toddlers and preschool children are advised to limit rice milk due to the levels of arsenic.

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Now, to new data that's raising concerns about arsenic in rice. The research comes from the Food and Drug Administration and a leading consumer group, Consumer Reports. Both studied arsenic levels in hundreds of samples of rice and rice-based foods, including cereals, crackers and rice milk. Based on its findings, Consumer Reports is urging the FDA to set a federal standard to limit arsenic in rice.

NPR health correspondent Allison Aubrey joins us to talk more about the findings. And, Allison, tell us some specifics here. What exactly did they find?

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi, Audie. Well, the testing by both the FDA and Consumer Reports found that there are measurable amounts of arsenic in virtually every rice product they tested. Turns out, rice is really good at absorbing arsenic from the soil it grows in. Some of the arsenic is there naturally and some of it may come from arsenic-based pesticide residues. And the ranges here of arsenic in foods really varied.

For instance, Consumer Reports found that Kellogg's Rice Krispies had about 85 to 90 parts per billion of arsenic; that's for a one-cup serving. And some of the baby rice cereals, such as Gerber and Earth's Best Organic Whole Grain Rice, had traces of arsenic in the 150 to 250 parts per billion range.

CORNISH: So the question I suppose everyone wants answered is, you know, does this matter? I mean can this amount - you said trace amounts - of arsenic be dangerous?

AUBREY: Well, as the U.S. rice growers are quick to point out, there are no documented cases of people getting sick from exposure to arsenic at these levels. But the concern here is really about the long term. Inorganic arsenic is a known carcinogen. And there have been studies in countries, including Chile and Argentina, that have found links between arsenic in drinking water and increased risks of certain cancer, such as lung and bladder cancer.

So, as a result, the U.S. has in place a federal standard for drinking water. Arsenic levels cannot exceed 10 parts per billion in the water. And advocates say, you know, hey, this is what's needed for food, a federal standard. Currently there is no standard in place.

CORNISH: Now, we mentioned the FDA is studying arsenic levels as well, but they're not ready to take action.

AUBREY: They're clearly signaling that they are going to do something here. The struggle is just because there's arsenic in rice, it doesn't mean that it's dangerous. The scientists like to point out, the dose is the poison, and the FDA is saying, Hey, give us time to get more data to try to figure out if the levels here are worrisome or not.

CORNISH: Now, you mentioned that some of the arsenic comes from pesticide residues. Are these actually being applied or used on the rice crops?

AUBREY: No, the pesticides were actually used on cotton crops in the South. And since there's some evidence that the Southern states - Arkansas, Louisiana and Missouri and Texas - produce rice with generally higher levels of total arsenic compared to, say, California, it could be that there is more residue in the soils from former cotton fields.

CORNISH: Lastly, Allison, what should people do, if anything, about what they eat or what they buy?

AUBREY: Well, a lot of rice producers are on top of this issue, as Consumer Reports found. One company in Ohio that makes baby formula, called Nature's One, it's worked with its rice syrup supplier to put in place a filtration system, to basically reduce arsenic. So it's possible that the industry will come up with new ways of limiting arsenic.

But what you can do on your own is this, vary your diet. You know, don't rely exclusively on rice for your grains. And here's another tip: you may be able to cut exposure to inorganic arsenic by using lots and lots of water when you cook your rice. As Consumer Reports recommends, you can use six parts water to one part rice. I know that sounds like a lot, instead of the traditional 2-to-1 ratio. And then you drain off the excess water at the end.

CORNISH: All right. Thank you, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.