Should You Worry About Arsenic in Baby Cereal and Drinking Water?
Even though most people don't know much about chemicals in general or poisons in particular, virtually everyone knows that arsenic is bad. In the first century, arsenic was already known to be a deadly poison. However, it was the Borgias in the 14th and 15th centuries who perfected its use to eliminate opponents in order to increase their wealth and power.
Arsenic is naturally occurring in groundwater in many places around the globe and therefore in our food supply. This is why you might have seen reports in the news about the presence of arsenic in baby cereals made with rice.
While we've known about the acute toxicity of arsenic for a long time, the health effects of low levels of arsenic are less well understood. What are the hazards of small amounts of arsenic consumed over a long period of time? How much should parents worry about arsenic in baby cereal, fruit juices or their drinking water?
How Does Arsenic Get Into Water and Food?
Arsenic comes in two forms: organic and inorganic.
Inorganic arsenic is naturally present in the earth's crust and it's bound to oxygen or combined with a metal-like sodium. Inorganic arsenic is soluble in water, which is why it's found in drinking water and soil in many parts of the world. This means it can get taken up by plant roots. By this same route, it can also enter our food through prior use of arsenic containing pesticides.
Which Foods Can Contain High Levels of Arsenic?
At the present time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no standard for arsenic in rice or rice-containing products. But given recent concerns, this month the FDA has proposed an action level of 100 parts per billion (ppb) for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal. This would allow it to prevent the sale and distribution of products over this level, as well as order the recall of products that exceed that level.
The FDA found that about half of the rice-based products for infants and young children they tested were below the agency's proposed 100 ppb level. Unfortunately, that means half were above that level. Its investigation does not address the level of arsenic in other consumer products containing rice that children consume. Since rice cereals are often recommended as baby's first solid food, minimizing arsenic in this food is a clear priority.
Other foods that have been found to contain significant amounts of arsenic include apple and pear fruit juices. In an FDA survey conducted between 2005 and 2011, arsenic levels in juice and concentrate ranged from not detectable to 45 ppb in apple and 124 ppb in pear. The arsenic in these fruits is mostly thought to come from previous use of arsenic-containing pesticides in orchards. An action level of 10 ppb was proposed by FDA in 2013 for apple juice.
Why is There arsenic in Rice?
Because rice absorbs so much water when it grows (think rice paddies), it tends to absorb more arsenic than other grains, such as wheat, oats and rye.
Among different types of rice, brown rice tends to contain higher levels of arsenic than white rice because the arsenic accumulates more in the outer coating, which is removed in white rice. Studies have suggested that rice grown in the south-central U.S. appears to have higher levels of arsenic than that grown in other states and countries.
According to a 2007 study this may be because of previous use of arsenic-based pesticides to control the boll weevil pest on cotton. From the 1930s to the 1960s, approximately 10 to 15 pounds of arsenic-based pesticide were used per acre for every planting.
Arsenic compounds were also used to reduce debris in mechanized harvesting of cotton; by causing the plants to drop their leaves, it made machine harvesting easier. When these products were used, they typically applied 3 to 4.5 pounds per acre per planting.
For instance, in the state of Texas, typical naturally occurring arsenic levels in soil average 6 parts per million (ppm). But as a result of previous use of arsenic-containing pesticide and desiccant products, these fields can average 40 ppm, with some fields far higher.
Whether from pesticides or desiccants, once arsenic gets into the soil it does not break down. So if fields that once held cotton are switched to cultivate rice, it may result in high levels of arsenic in that rice.
What Does Arsenic Exposure Do to Health?
Arsenic, unlike lead, does not accumulate in the human body and most of it is eliminated in urine in a matter of hours. What remains tends to concentrate in hair, nails, skin and to a lesser extent in bones and teeth. How arsenic affects the body varies depending upon the organ system and whether the arsenic's chemical form in food or water is organic or inorganic.
Long-term exposure to inorganic arsenic is associated with a range of health effects, including skin, bladder, kidney and lung cancer, as well as diabetes, heart disease and damage to blood vessels and the nervous system.
My personal research interests have included the potential adverse effects of arsenic on pregnancy. Research shows arsenic is a reproductive toxin to the developing fetus. Animal studies have found that arsenic exposure can lead to birth defects and pregnancy loss. Human studies found increased rates of stillbirths in communities near metal smelters and arsenic production facilities, where people were potentially exposed to elevated levels of arsenic in air, house dust or drinking water.
The presence of arsenic in rice has been under scrutiny for several years. For instance, a 2012 scientific study conducted by Dartmouth found that children in the U.S. who ate rice had significantly higher levels of arsenic in their urine than those who did not. This same group conducted a detailed study of arsenic levels and rice consumption of New Hampshire children in the first year of life. A 2016 study, also from Dartmouth, found that infants who ate baby rice cereal had concentrations of arsenic in their urine twice as high as did infants who ate no rice.
However, at the present time there has been little research into adverse health effects of arsenic in food at these levels.
When it comes to the potential health effects of ingested arsenic to children, most of our knowledge comes from studies of populations with high levels of arsenic in their drinking water (greater than 50 μg/L). A μg/L is an amount equivalent to a single drop in a large tanker truck. For instance, studies of children in areas of Bangladesh found reductions in their measured IQ.
A study from Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health also found decreases in IQ in children in the U.S., but at arsenic levels an order of magnitude lower (greater than 5 μg/L) than the Bangladesh study. At present, the Environmental Protection Agency defines the acceptable level of arsenic in drinking water at 10 μg/L. The Columbia study clearly suggests that the current arsenic in drinking standard may not be sufficient to protect children from these developmental effects.
Curbing Exposure to Arsenic
It is possible to reduce exposure to arsenic, by reducing rice in the diet and especially by limiting infants' consumption of rice-containing products. The amount of arsenic can also be reduced by cooking the rice in an excess of water and then draining it prior to serving. Unfortunately, along with the arsenic, this decreases the levels of desirable and essential minerals and nutrients in the rice as well.
Consumers can look for rice grown in parts of the country such as California that are lower in arsenic.
As with any area of scientific investigation, where health concerns are involved, it is important not to overreact and to keep things in perspective.
Rice is certainly a nutritious food and rich in essential nutrients. It's a food staple for most of the world's inhabitants. Rice products for infants and children as part of a well-balanced diet are fine. However, it's probably best for rice to not be the only grain in their diet.
Stuart Shalat is a professor and the director of the Division of Environmental Health at the School of Public Health at Georgia State University.
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By Matthew J. Landry and Heather Eicher-Miller
When university presidents were surveyed in spring of 2020 about what they felt were the most pressing concerns of COVID-19, college students going hungry didn't rank very high.
Why It Matters<p>This is not just a matter of growling stomachs. This is a straight-up education and health issue.</p><p>When students don't really know if they'll be able to get enough to eat, it can lead to a series of problems that make it harder to stay in school. For instance, it can affect <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1359105318783028" target="_blank">academic performance</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-019-6943-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">sleep quality</a>. It can also lead to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105318783028" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">poor mental and physical health</a> outcomes for college students.</p><p>Food insecurity can also result in disrupted eating patterns if there is <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6627945/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">not enough food or the variety</a> or <a href="https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-019-6943-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">quality of what someone eats</a> is low.</p>
Campus Food Pantries<p>Previous strategies by <a href="https://www.gao.gov/assets/700/696254.pdf" target="_blank">colleges and universities</a> to fight hunger in their student bodies have varied widely. They include campus food pantries, emergency cash assistance and nutrition education through noncredit classes or workshopse.</p><p>These strategies were put to the test during the spring 2020 semester, when nearly <a href="https://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Hopecenter_RealCollegeDuringthePandemic.pdf" target="_blank">three in five students</a> said they had trouble meeting their own basic needs during the pandemic.</p><p>College food pantries saw <a href="https://www.utrgv.edu/newsroom/2020/05/01-utrgv-student-food-pantry-seeing-recent-increase-in-demand-during-covid-19.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">big increases</a> in demand. Others said they <a href="https://www.theprospectordaily.com/2020/09/22/uteps-food-pantry-is-running-out-of-food/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">were getting less donated food</a>. This made it even harder to meet the rising food needs of students.</p><p>Campus food pantries largely rely on local or regional food banks, which have been dealing with <a href="https://www.indystar.com/story/news/local/2020/10/04/indiana-food-banks-call-more-food-stamps-meet-publics-need/3523683001/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">greater demand</a> than they are able to meet during the pandemic.</p><p>The many students who are attending college remotely will, of course, have less access to campus resources like food pantries.</p>
Federal Help<p>Other potential ways to get more food are government programs like the <a href="https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/recipient/eligibility" target="_blank">Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program</a>, known as SNAP. Yet the majority of able-bodied students are not eligible. Long-standing restrictions, like the <a href="https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/students" target="_blank">college SNAP rule</a>, prevent full-time students from receiving these benefits.</p><p>Such regulatory hurdles were created under the assumption that most students can rely on their parents to get enough to eat. However, college students have vastly different levels of financial support. Some students can rely on their parents for everything and others cannot rely on their parents for anything.</p><p>Decreased reliance on parental financial support is <a href="https://ir.library.louisville.edu/jsfa/vol47/iss3/5/" target="_blank">especially common</a> for first-generation students and students of color, who now make up <a href="https://1xfsu31b52d33idlp13twtos-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Race-and-Ethnicity-in-Higher-Education.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">45% of enrolled college students</a>.</p><p>Under normal circumstances, many college students might rely on part-time jobs to pay for their food.</p>
Short-Term Solutions<p>Universities and colleges can make it a priority to ensure students are aware of all available campus resources and services. They can also potentially help students apply for federal assistance benefits.</p><p>Campus food pantries are not a fully effective and efficacious solution for the scale of college food insecurity, but they can be a good interim solution to increase access to food for students.</p><p>Campuses without food pantries can start one, making use of resources the <a href="https://cufba.org/resources/" target="_blank">College and University Food Bank Alliance</a> provides. Schools with food pantries can try to get them to <a href="https://www.swipehunger.org/5campuspantry/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reach more students</a>.</p><p>Universities and colleges can also lean on one another for support. The <a href="http://wp.auburn.edu/endchildhungeral/alabama-campus-coalition-for-basic-needs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Alabama Campus Coalition for Basic Needs</a> is a great example of this. It brings together 10 universities across the state of Alabama collectively working to address student food insecurity.</p>
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By Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie
Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
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