The word "arsenic" conjures up images of old lace, of murder by poison, and — as was aptly suggested by Kent Sepkowitz, an infectious-disease specialist, in his Sept. 20, 2011, article for the Daily Beast — of a murder mystery tale.
Its nefarious associations haven’t done anything to help its reputation, and because sensationalism sells, plenty of reports, "experts," and news coverage are going to get you to tune in, click, and buy, likely banking on the chances that you will be panicked enough to listen when they warn you that recent tests show higher-than-usual levels of inorganic arsenic in your rice — the rice you eat, the rice cereals your children eat, everything that is or made with rice.
That’s right. Inorganic arsenic. The bad one. The one linked to cancer, including of the skin, bladder, and kidneys. Let’s face it. It is pretty scary to hear, and you will might do one of two things now if this is the first you’re hearing of it: Clear your cupboards of all rice products and/or do a Google search of arsenic in rice, no doubt finding the November 2012 article published by Consumer Reports detailing its findings and urging people to limit their rice consumption.
Just the facts
But let’s dragnet this and look at just the facts for a moment. Arsenic is an element that mimics a metal. It occurs naturally in the environment, which means that it’s in our rocks, soil, water, air, plants, and animals. You can’t smell or taste arsenic — that’s why it made for such an excellent device in murder-mystery novels. Arsenic that occurs naturally is referred to as organic arsenic. Arsenic also pervades our environment via agricultural and industrial sources. We use arsenic in our pesticides and in chemicals used to pressure-treat wood. This inorganic arsenic, linked to cancer by various organizations, including the Food and Drug Administration, is more toxic than organic arsenic.
So what’s the rumpus?
In September 2011, Dr. Mehmet Oz got in hot water for inciting panic about arsenic levels in apple juice on his show. ABC News medical editor and former acting director of the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry Dr. Richard Besser stated Oz’s episode on arsenic levels in juice was "extremely irresponsible fear-mongering."
A little more than a year later, Consumer Reports published results of a study it conducted that found levels of inorganic arsenic in rice and rice products that it deemed worrisome. Initial samples tested included various brands of non-basmati rice, basmati rice, brown rice, rice cereals (puffed, nonpuffed, hot cereal, and infant cereals), rice cakes, and rice milk.
This time it’s not a celebrity doctor trying to generate ratings. This time, the tests being conducted are actually differentiating between organic and inorganic arsenic — which Oz did not do. So is it fair to suggest or even hint that Consumer Reports is fear-mongering to drive traffic to its online magazine? After all, the tests were not flawed. In fact, the FDA’s own test findings were consistent with those of Consumer Reports.
Here comes the science
The problem here is that based on a study that looked at 200 samples, Consumer Reports has urged people to limit their consumption of rice and rice products as a means of minimizing their risk for exposure to arsenic. So start clearing those shelves, eh? Not so fast.
The FDA is urging calm and reminding people that the first study is merely a first step that warrants further tests: "There are many different types of rice and rice products that are grown in different areas and under different conditions. Further analysis is needed to assess how these variations may affect the results." And the thing about scientific tests is that you really must account for variables, to ensure your results are not skewed or otherwise flawed.
"It is critical to not get ahead of the science," said FDA deputy commissioner for foods Michael Taylor. "The FDA’s ongoing data collection and other assessments will give us a solid scientific basis for determining what action levels and/or other steps are needed to reduce exposure to arsenic in rice and rice products."
Never mind that inorganic arsenic didn’t just suddenly show up in our rice in 2012, or even in 2011 when Dr. Oz sounded the apple-juice alarms. Even in its more toxic inorganic form, arsenic has been in our water and soil for a long time. Since rice needs both soil and water to grow — it grows in marshes — it gets the old double whammy. To add insult to injury, brown rice showed higher levels of inorganic arsenic than white rice did, since it doesn’t get bleached and polished so none of the arsenic that sticks to the husk gets removed.
Let’s take a look at why inorganic arsenic is getting into our soil and water and contaminating our rice, shall we? Arsenic was used as a preservative in pressure-treated lumber. Residential use in the United States stopped as late as 2003, but it is still used in industrial buildings. Arsenic also was used in pesticides. Inorganic arsenic in pesticides was stopped in 1993 in the United States. Arsenic is also used as a preservative in animal hides, in copper smelting, in some glass manufacturing, and as arsine gas to enhance electrical junctions in semiconductors. According to Sepkowitz, in his article for the Daily Beast, "Arsenic was present as Roxarsone in a popular chicken-feed supplement. Pfizer only last year removed the product voluntarily after arsenic was found in chicken livers."
So yes, we have banned pesticides and feeds and chemicals that contain inorganic arsenic, but it’s not like simply flipping a switch. It’s had all this time to contaminate the water and soil. Just because we finally listened — and assuming everyone is following the rules and not using any banned substances or dumping them into our waters illegally, ahem — doesn’t mean we magically erase the damage we’ve done. Consequences sure do suck, don’t they?
Whether you follow the FDA’s advice to let science do its job and show some definitive conclusions before hitting any panic buttons, or follow Consumer Reports’ advice to go ahead and limit consumption, to get exposed to dangerous levels of arsenic via your rice alone, you’d probably have to consume inordinate amounts of it at every meal for years and years. Never mind the countless variables in play that affect your chances of getting cancer. So beware of hitting that panic button too fast, and don’t forget to consider the planet. The next time you hear environmentalists urging you to take care of this rock on which you live in, don’t be so quick to dismiss them.
— Vivian Gomez, HellaWella
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