Science and Politics Out of Step on Arsenic, Scientist Says

Feb 26, 2013

Is your rice laced with arsenic? Recent studies have shown high levels of the toxin in some rice products.
Credit Calgary Reviews / Flickr

Arsenic is a heavy metal that is considered a known carcinogen, or cancer causing agent. It is also associated with a range of other adverse health effects. But there is no federal standard for arsenic in food or beverages other than water.

Last year, two studies by Consumer Reports found what they called 'worrisome' levels of arsenic, first in apple and grape juice and then in rice products. A significant number of the products tested by Consumer Reports exceeded the federal drinking water standard for arsenic. The reports prompted calls for expansion of federal standards for arsenic, and also warnings that people should limit their intake of rice and fruit juice.

The FDA has also been monitoring arsenic levels in food and beverages since 1991 as part of their Total Dietary Study. They say their results are consistent with Consumer Reports’ findings, but that there is no need for consumers to change their eating or drinking habits.

So how worried should we be about arsenic in our food and drinks? Should there be federal standards for these products? And what goes into setting such a standard?

Dr. Josh Hamilton is Chief Academic and Scientific Officer, and a Senior Scientist at MBL. His research is largely focused on the mechanisms of arsenic toxicity, and he was heavily involved in getting a federal drinking water standard for arsenic enacted. His perspective on this issue is informative, and stops just shy of alarmist.