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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Wild and Scenic Merced River, California. Bob Wick / BLM<p>Let's begin with COVID-19. More than <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">16 million Americans</a> have contracted the coronavirus and, tragically,<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank"> more than</a> <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">300,000 have died</a> due to the pandemic. While health officials encourage hand-washing to contain the pandemic, at least <a href="https://closethewatergap.org/" target="_blank">2 million Americans</a> are currently living without running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater treatment. Meanwhile, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank">aging water infrastructure is growing increasingly costly for utilities to maintain</a>. That cost is passed along to consumers. The upshot? <a href="https://research.msu.edu/affordable-water-in-us-reaching-a-crisis/" target="_blank">More than 13 million</a> U.S. households regularly face unaffordable water bills — and, thus, the threat of water shutoffs. Without basic access to clean water, families and entire communities are at a higher risk of <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2020/08/05/488705/bridging-water-access-gap-covid-19-relief/" target="_blank">contracting</a> and spreading COVID-19.</p><p>We have a moral duty to ensure that everyone has access to clean water to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Last spring, <a href="https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/coronavirus-stimulus-bill-explained-bailouts-unemployment-benefits.html" target="_blank">Congress appropriated more than $4 trillion</a> to jumpstart the economy and bring millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Additional federal assistance — desperately needed — will present a historic opportunity to improve our crumbling infrastructure, which has been <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">grossly underfunded for decades</a>.</p><p>A report by my organization, American Rivers, suggests that <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Congress must invest at least $50 billion</a> "to address the urgent water infrastructure needs associated with COVID-19," including the rising cost of water. This initial boost would allow for the replacement and maintenance of sewers, stormwater infrastructure and water supply facilities.</p>
Economic Recovery<p>Investing in water infrastructure and healthy rivers also creates jobs. Consider, for example, that <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y9p6sgnk" target="_blank">every $1 million spent on water infrastructure in the United States generates more than 15 jobs</a> throughout the economy, according to a report by the Value of Water Campaign. Similarly, <a href="https://tinyurl.com/yyvd2ksp" target="_blank">every "$1 million invested in forest and watershed restoration contracting will generate between 15.7 and 23.8 jobs,</a> depending on the work type," states a working paper released by the Ecosystem Workforce Program, University of Oregon. Healthy rivers also spur tourism and recreation, which many communities rely on for their livelihoods. According to the findings by the Outdoor Industry Association, which have been shared in our report, "Americans participating in watersports and fishing spend over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">$174 billion</a> on gear and trip related expenses. And, the outdoor watersports and fishing economy supports over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">1.5 million jobs nationwide</a>."</p><p>After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress invested in infrastructure to put Americans back to work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act <a href="https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-a-budget/25941-clean-water-green-infrastructure-get-major-boost" target="_blank">of 2009 (ARRA) allocated $6 billion</a> for clean water and drinking water infrastructure to decrease unemployment and boost the economy. More specifically, <a href="https://www.conservationnw.org/news-updates/us-reps-push-for-millions-of-restoration-and-resilience-jobs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an analysis of ARRA</a> "showed conservation investments generated 15 to 33 jobs per million dollars," and more than doubled the rate of return, according to a letter written in May 2020 by 79 members of Congress, seeking greater funding for restoration and resilience jobs.</p><p>Today, when considering how to create work for the <a href="https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10.7 million</a> people who are currently unemployed, Congress should review previous stimulus investments and build on their successes by embracing major investments in water infrastructure and watershed restoration.</p>
Racial Justice<p>American Rivers also recommends that Congress dedicate <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$500 billion for rivers and clean water over the next 10 years</a> — not just for the benefit of our environment and economy, but also to begin to address the United States' history of deeply entrenched racial injustice.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.epa.gov/npdes/sanitary-sewer-overflows-ssos" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">23,000-75,000 sewer overflows</a> that occur each year release up to <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/2020/05/fighting-for-rivers-means-fighting-for-justice/#:~:text=There%20are%20also%2023%2C000%20to%2075%2C000%20sanitary%20sewer,to%20do%20with%20the%20mission%20of%20American%20Rivers." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10 billion gallons of toxic sewage</a> <em>every day</em> into rivers and streams. This disproportionately impacts communities of color, because, for generations, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color have been <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flooding-disproportionately-harms-black-neighborhoods/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relegated</a> to live in flood-prone areas and in neighborhoods that have been intentionally burdened with a lack of development that degrades people's health and quality of life. In some communities of color, incessant flooding due to stormwater surges or <a href="https://www.ajc.com/opinion/opinion-partnering-to-better-manage-our-water/7WQ6SEAQP5E4LGQCEYY5DO334Y/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">combined sewer overflows</a> has gone unmitigated for decades.</p><p>We have historically treated people as separate from rivers and water. We can't do that anymore. Every voice — particularly those of people most directly impacted — must have a loudspeaker and be included in decision-making at the highest levels.</p><p>Accordingly, the new administration must diligently invest in projects at the community level that will improve lives in our country's most marginalized communities. We also must go further to ensure that local leaders have a seat at the decision-making table. To this end, the Biden-Harris administration should restore <a href="https://www.epa.gov/cwa-401#:~:text=Section%20401%20Certification%20The%20Clean%20Water%20Act%20%28CWA%29,the%20United%20States.%20Learn%20more%20about%20401%20certification." target="_blank">Section 401 of the Clean Water Act</a>, which was undermined by the <a href="https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2020/tribes-and-environmental-groups-sue-trump-administration-to-preserve-clean-water-protections#:~:text=Under%20Section%20401%20of%20the%20Clean%20Water%20Act%2C,seeks%20to%20undermine%20that%20authority%20in%20several%20ways%3A" target="_blank">Trump administration's 2020 regulatory changes</a>. This provision gives states and tribes the authority to decide whether major development projects, such as hydropower and oil and gas projects, move forward.</p>
Climate Resilience<p>Of course, the menacing shadow looming over it all? Climate change. <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">More than 100 climate-related catastrophes</a> have pummeled the Earth since the pandemic was declared last spring, including the blitzkrieg of megafires, superstorms and heat waves witnessed during the summer of 2020, directly impacting the lives of more than <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">50 million people globally</a>.</p><p>Water and climate scientist Brad Udall often says, "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQhpj5G0dME" target="_blank">Climate change is water change</a>." In other words, the most obvious and dire impacts of climate change are evidenced in profound changes to our rivers and water resources. You've likely seen it where you live: Floods are more damaging and frequent. Droughts are deeper and longer. Uncertainty is destabilizing industry and lives.</p><p>By galvanizing action for healthy rivers and managing our water resources more effectively, we can insure future generations against the consequences of climate change. First, we must safeguard rivers that are still healthy and free-flowing. Second, we must protect land and property against the ravages of flooding. And finally, we must promote policies and practical solutions that take the science of climate disruption into account when planning for increased flooding, water shortage and habitat disruption.</p><p>Imagine all that rivers do for us. Most of our towns and cities have a river running through them or flowing nearby. Rivers provide clean drinking water, irrigate crops that provide our food, power our homes and businesses, provide wildlife habitat, and are the lifeblood of the places where we enjoy and explore nature, and where we play and nourish our spirits. Healthy watersheds help <a href="https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059952" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mitigate</a> climate change, absorbing and reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Healthy rivers and floodplains help communities adapt and build resilience in the face of climate change by improving flood protection and providing water supply and quality benefits. Rivers are the cornerstones of healthy, strong communities.</p><p>The more than <a href="https://archive.epa.gov/water/archive/web/html/index-17.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">3 million miles</a> of rivers and streams running across our country are a source of great strength and opportunity. When we invest in healthy rivers and clean water, we can improve our lives. When we invest in rivers, we create jobs and strengthen our economy. When we invest in rivers, we invest in our shared future.</p>
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