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Arsenic FAQ

What is Arsenic?

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that is found in soil, water, plants and animals. The properties of arsenic have been known since antiquity. In ancient times, it was used in a variety of potions of uncertain therapeutic value and was a favorite in various poison-for-hire schemes. In modern times arsenic has been used in a variety of applications including as a pesticide, as a wood preservative and in the semiconductor industry. It exists in two forms: organic and inorganic.

What is the difference between organic and inorganic arsenic?

Inorganic and organic arsenic occur naturally in the environment, with inorganic forms being most abundant. Inorganic arsenic is associated with other metals in igneous and sedimentary rocks, and it also occurs in combination with many other elements, especially oxygen, chlorine, and sulfur. Organic arsenic contains carbon and hydrogen. It should be noted that inorganic and organic are not terms used to indicate pesticide usage, or even human activity, but rather the other metals and elements they are bound to. (Source)

How does arsenic get in my food?

Arsenic has been in food as long as humans have been consuming food. Because arsenic exists in the soil and water, incorporation into most plants and food, including rice, is inevitable. Some studies suggest that human activity can elevate arsenic levels. While arsenic is present in a wide array of foods, including flour, corn, wheat, fruit, poultry, rice and vegetables, as well as beer, wine, fruit juices and water, we support additional research into the pathways for arsenic to be absorbed by plants, and methods to reduce levels of inorganic arsenic in rice.

What are the health risks of arsenic?

Because arsenic is a naturally occurring element in water and food, it is important for toxicologists to determine safe exposure levels. In epidemiological studies observing the effects of poor water quality, particularly in developing countries, scientists have found that high oral exposure to arsenic over time causes adverse health effects. For example, in wells containing arsenic levels of 2,000 ppb, studies showed that such high levels of arsenic exposure can cause negative health effects in various organs, especially the skin.

What does "ppb" mean?

1 ppb = one part per billion, or 1µg (microgram or one millionth of a gram) of substance per liter of water. This is equivalent to one drop of water in a swimming pool, adding a pinch of salt to a 10-ton bag of potato chips or three seconds in a century.

How are contaminants in the food supply regulated?

Regulatory agencies protect the public health by establishing limits on contaminants in food. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for setting limits on contaminants in food. In general, these limits (called Maximum Limits or MLs) are set based on the principle of As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA).

What does ALARA mean?

ALARA stands for As Low As Reasonably Achievable and relates to the process of setting Maximum Limits (MLs). Let’s say for example toxicologists determine that 50 ppb of chemical X is safe- it would not be expected to produce harm. But let’s say that the food industry (growers and processors) is able to keep Chemical X below 10 ppb without disrupting the food supply. This is where the ALARA principle says the limit should be set at 10 ppb, as low as we can reasonably and reliably get it. Continue reading to learn more about safe food choices.

What is the current safe exposure limit for arsenic?

There are no limits (MLs) set by the FDA for total arsenic or inorganic arsenic in food. Codex, the arm of the United Nations that establishes standards for international trade in food, adopted a standard of maximum acceptable levels of arsenic in rice in July of 2014. This standard, 200 parts per billion (ppb), was set for white rice, which is generally understood to have lower levels of arsenic that brown rice (3). At this same meeting, Codex agreed to develop a code of practice to help countries comply with meeting this standard. The EPA has set a limit of 10 ppb inorganic Arsenic for drinking water and the FDA has set this same limit for bottled water. The question of what is a safe exposure limit for arsenic in food continues to be studied by regulatory agencies in the US and the rest of the world. We continue to actively monitor research on the issue of limits, and will share information with our consumers as this evolves. Continue reading to learn more about the process of setting a safe contaminant exposure limit.

What precautions can I take if safe limits of contaminants in a certain food have not been set?

At the levels we have seen, there does not appear to be a short-term risk for consumers of rice. The concerns that we see being raised have to do with the long-term effects of consumption of products with low levels of arsenic. One thing that we believe is helpful for all consumers is to eat a balanced diet, not only to have a well-rounded source of nutrition, but also to minimize long-term risks from consuming any one particular food. We also encourage all consumers to study the available information for themselves and reach their own conclusions, and have attempted to make this easier for consumers by bringing this information together through links on our Resources page. We also support the FDA’s efforts to complete a health risk assessment as the next step in fully understanding the health impact of consuming minute amounts of arsenic.

Is arsenic in rice a health concern?

FDA has been monitoring this issue for over 20 years, and increased their level of review about one year ago. FDA stated on September 6, 2013 that ‘Rice is an important staple for many people, and the arsenic levels that FDA found in the samples it evaluated were too low to cause any immediate or short-term adverse health effects. All consumers, including pregnant women, infants and children, are encouraged to eat a well-balanced diet for good nutrition and to minimize potential adverse consequences from consuming an excess of any one food.’

Additionally, based on their data and available scientific research, FDA is not recommending changes by consumers regarding their consumption of rice and rice products. Eating a balanced and diversified diet that includes a variety of grains in order to ensure good nutrition is FDA’s current advice for consumers. Read more here.

What about calls to moderate consumption of brown rice?

Based on their preliminary data and available scientific research, FDA is not recommending changes by consumers regarding their consumption of rice and rice products. Eating a balanced and diversified diet that includes a variety of grains in order to ensure good nutrition is FDA’s current advice for consumers.

FDA also states there is currently, an absence of adequate scientific data to demonstrate causal relationship between rice and rice product consumption and the types of illness typically associated with arsenic.

The health benefits of rice and particularly brown rice, have been studied extensively over the years. There are a number of studies that demonstrate the positive health benefits of consuming brown rice, many of which you can find through the Whole Grains Council website. These should be considered when evaluating what one would substitute for rice and rice products in their diets.

For additional insights on dietary recommendations for addressing arsenic concerns, please check out Dietary Advice to Address Arsenic Concern by nutritionists Dr. Alan Greene, Ashley Koff and Dr. Oz.

The levels of inorganic arsenic in brown rice seem to be much higher than the levels in white rice. Why is this and should I change my consumption patterns as a result?

All grains start life as whole grain. In their natural state growing in the fields, a whole grain is the entire seed of the plant (also called the kernel), consisting of three parts: the bran, the germ and the endosperm. Brown rice is a whole grain and contains the entire grain kernel, all three of its parts. White rice, considered a refined grain, consist only of the endosperm. The bran and germ, which is about 10-15% of the whole kernel, are removed in milling and processing.

Most of the data we have seen indicates that brown rice has 30-50% higher levels of inorganic arsenic than white rice. However, scientists have not determined why or how arsenic is distributed through-out the rice plant and kernel.

As to the question of whether you should change your consumption pattern, please consider:

Based on their data released on Sept 6, 2013 and available scientific research, FDA is not recommending changes by consumers regarding their consumption of rice and rice products. Eating a balanced and diversified diet that includes a variety of grains in order to ensure good nutrition is FDA’s current advice for consumers.

The health benefits of rice and particularly brown rice, have been studied extensively over the years. There are a number of studies that demonstrate the positive health benefits of consuming brown rice, many of which you can find through our Dietary Advice to Address Arsenic Concern by nutritionists Dr. Alan Greene, Ashley Koff and Dr. Oz. 

What about infant foods? Should parents avoid rice products?

We take the concerns of parents very seriously. The health of our consumers, including infants and children, is our highest priority. The FDA is developing a health risk assessment, which requires the analysis of much data and very complex interactions of diet, environment and behaviors. We continue to support that effort. Once the FDA’s full health risk assessment is complete, it will be much easier for consumers to make informed decisions about this issue. In the meantime, we encourage consumers to evaluate the information that is available in published research, and make their own assessment regarding the food they feed infants, and the potential health effects of any alternative food they may choose.

For additional insights on dietary recommendations for addressing arsenic concerns, please check out Dietary Advice to Address Arsenic Concern by nutritionists Dr. Alan Greene, Ashley Koff and Dr. Oz.

How can a toxin, like arsenic, find its way into an organic product?

Plants are what they eat. Arsenic is one of the most common elements found in the environment. It is naturally occurring, and can be found in most foods. The critical factor is the dose. The levels cited in research, and that our preliminary test results are showing, do not represent toxic levels. Additional research is needed to understand the uptake process in plants, such as rice, so that we can develop ways to minimize levels. Organic agriculture embraces natural systems of production, and we support continued research to utilize natural systems to minimize levels of inorganic arsenic in the food supply.

Is there a difference between organic and conventional practices in relation to arsenic uptake?

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element in soil and water. All plants take up arsenic, including fruits and vegetables, regardless of whether the farming method is conventional or organic. Organic agriculture embraces natural systems of production, and we support continued research to utilize natural systems to minimize levels of inorganic arsenic in the food supply.

You reference long-term effects in many of your responses. What do you mean by that?

What we mean by long-term effects is the health impact one would experience from ingestion of a material at a specific level over one’s lifetime, which is generally assumed to be 70 years. In conducting risk assessments, regulators will look at how much one’s risk of contracting disease is elevated by a life-time’s exposure at a certain level. This is generally considered to be a conservative approach to quantifying risk, consistent with the mission of regulators to protect the health and safety of consumers. FDA is currently in the process of understanding the potential effects of long-term exposure to arsenic. To read FDA’s statement on this assessment, please check out Next Steps on Arsenic and Rice.

I consume a lot of rice products due to my dietary restrictions. Should I change my diet to reduce the amount of rice I consume?

We understand that many consumers have dietary restrictions due to existing health conditions, such as celiac disease and gluten intolerance, which lead them to consume more rice than most Americans.

Based on their data released Sept 6, 2013 and available scientific research, FDA is not recommending changes by consumers regarding their consumption of rice and rice products. Eating a balanced and diversified diet that includes a variety of grains in order to ensure good nutrition is FDA’s current advice for consumers.

The FDA’s next step is to conduct a comprehensive risk assessment, which will consider how much arsenic is consumed from rice and rice products, and whether there are variations in health effects for certain segments of the population. The draft risk assessment is ongoing and will be released to the public following peer review. Once it is completed, the assessment will help the FDA decide whether any further actions might be necessary.

We appreciate the position our consumers with restricted diets are in when reading reports raising concerns about the foods they have come to rely on. We support the rigorous scientific approach required in order to conduct a comprehensive risk assessment, as well as continuing research on methods to lower the levels present in food.

For additional insights on dietary recommendations for addressing arsenic concerns, please check out Dietary Advice to Address Arsenic Concern by nutritionists Dr. Alan Greene, Ashley Koff and Dr. Oz.

Does brown rice syrup have higher levels of inorganic arsenic?

Our testing results, research, and consultation with other food producers, indicates that the brown rice syrup manufacturing process does not concentrate the level of inorganic arsenic. It appears that the level in the syrup is at the same level as the rice that was used to make the syrup.

Last Updated: 11/18/14