What is arsenic, and what does it do to the human body?
Arsenic is an element found in nature, and in man-made products, including some pesticides. Low levels of arsenic are found in soil, water and air. The element is taken up by plants as they grow — this means arsenic makes its way into our food.
Most people's largest source of arsenic is food, according to information from the Virginia Department of Public Health.
Long-term exposure to low doses of arsenic may change the way cells communicate, and reduce their ability to function, according to researchers at Dartmouth University. It could play a role in the development of diabetes, cancer, vascular disease and lung disease.
The Food and Drug Administration says that long-term exposure to high levels of arsenic is associated with higher rates of skin cancer, bladder cancer and lung cancer, as well as heart disease.
Arsenic does not build up in the body, according to Dartmouth. It can leave the system in a day or two, once consumption stops.
Plenty of common foods have a level of arsenic in them. Beef, chicken, fish, shrimp, cooked spinach, and grape juice are among these. There is even arsenic in drinking water. The biggest concern, though, is the elevated level of arsenic in rice and rice products.
Rice appears to be particularly vulnerable to arsenic contamination because it grows in water.
Arsenic dissolves easily in water. So drinking water has long been monitored as a source of exposure to arsenic.
Because rice is grown in paddies, which are flooded with water, it can be exposed to higher amounts of arsenic than plants grown in drier soils.
There are two types of arsenic: inorganic and organic. Inorganic is the more concerning of the two, as it's considered to be more toxic and is a known carcinogen. The Food and Drug Administration associates long-term exposure to high levels of arsenic with greater risk for cancers of the skin, bladder, and lungs. It is also linked to heart disease. Furthermore, long-term exposure to low levels can change and reduce cell function, as well as increase potential development of diabetes, vascular disease, and lung disease.
Consumer Reports has recommended that people avoid eating rice and rice products. However, there are some researchers that disagree with that warning. Brown rice and wheat germ - both found to have elevated levels of arsenic - contain important compounds such as vitamin B3, niacin and folates, which aid in the elimination of arsenic in the body. Instead of completely axing these products from your diet, some researchers simply advise consumers to eat a balanced diet and, when eating rice, rinse it before and after cooking.
There has been no federal limit set on arsenic levels in food. The FDA tests for it with a program that screens for harmful substances, but when inorganic arsenic is found, it is treated on a case-by-case basis. Recently, the FDA has announced its consideration for setting a standard for arsenic in fruit juice. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has a limit on quantities in drinking water; however, setting the cap at 10 parts per billion. Note that this is for public drinking water; private wells may have higher levels than this restriction.
It has been found that rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas has higher levels of arsenic than rice grown in India, Taiwan, and California. The FDA acknowledged public concern and is hoping to find out the potential health risks and ways to minimize them.
Like lead, mercury, and other heavy metals, arsenic can persist in soil for years after it is applied to crops.
Much of the rice grown in the Southern U.S., for example, grows in paddies that were once cotton fields. Cotton farmers are known to have used arsenic-based pesticides to control bugs called boll weevils.
Other studies have shown that arsenic content in soil is higher around rivers and may be related to soil texture. Clay soils have more naturally occurring arsenic.
Because of its chemical structure, plants mistake arsenic for necessary nutrients and readily absorb it from the soil.
For now, it is not recommended that consumers cross rice off their grocery lists. Rather, researchers encourage a balanced diet and to keep your ears open for further findings. And remember, vitamin B3, niacin and folates, aid in the elimination of arsenic in the body.
Arsenic being intentionally added to conventional chicken
The old saying, "You are what you eat," poses troubling implications for public health in light of a new study on chicken meat, which found that most of it contains dangerously high levels of toxic arsenic. And the worst part is that industrial chicken producers are directly responsible for causing this, as they intentionally add arsenic-based pharmaceutical drugs to chicken feed in order to bulk them up quickly and improve the color of their meat, which in turn poisons you and your family.
You can thank researchers from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future in Maryland for exposing this little-known fact in a recent paper published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. As it turns out, virtually all commercial chicken, including certified organic and "antibiotic-free" varieties, contain some level of inorganic arsenic. But it is the conventional chicken fed arsenic-based drugs that have the highest levels.
As reported by GRACE Communications Foundation Senior Policy Advisor Chris Hunt, writing for Ecocentric, Johns Hopkins researchers collected a variety of chicken samples from grocery stores in 10 cities across the U.S. Some of the meat samples came from conventional sources, while others were U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) certified organic or "antibiotic-free." All the samples were tested side-by-side with each other, including in both raw and cooked form.
Upon analysis, the team discovered that the conventional chicken meat samples had the highest levels of inorganic arsenic overall, containing up to four times as much arsenic as the organic chicken samples. These same conventional chicken meat samples contained up to three times more arsenic than the maximum levels proposed, but later retracted, as a safety standard by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) back in 2011.
"The levels of inorganic arsenic discovered in chicken are cause for concern, especially since many of us are already exposed to the carcinogen through additional dietary and environmental paths," writes Hunt. "But unlike these other sources of exposure, which typically result from natural arsenic deposits, industry or residual contamination from the days of widespread arsenical pesticide use, as noted in the study, 'arsenical poultry drugs are deliberately administered to animals intended for human consumption.'"
FDA currently allows Big Pharma to lace chicken feed with arsenic to boost profits
What the study is referring to, of course, is the common practice, at least up until 2011, of industrial chicken producers adding a pharmaceutical drug known as roxarsone to chicken feed. The Pfizer, Inc.-manufactured drug was in heavy use between 2010 and 2011 when the Johns Hopkins study was conducted, and researchers found traces of this chemical in a significant percentage of the conventional chicken meat tested.
According to Hunt's analysis, arsenical chemicals like roxarsone have been in use since the 1940s, when chicken producers began adding it to chicken feed to speed up growth, prevent disease, and improve meat pigmentation. But as we now know, these chemicals are pervasive, and are known to cause cancer, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, mental impairment, miscarriage, and other serious human health issues.
"This study provides further evidence that continued use of arsenicals in food animal production poses an entirely unnecessary threat to public health," adds Hunt. "While the practice might boost the profits earned by poultry giants and the manufacturers who supply them with arsenical drugs, it's imprudent and irresponsible. As such, the FDA has no legitimate justification for its ongoing failure to prohibit arsenicals from food animal production."