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How dangerous is the arsenic in our rice? FDA needs to let us know

July 03, 2013|By Karin Klein
  • A farmer in Nepal gets ready to plant rice.
A farmer in Nepal gets ready to plant rice. (Narendra Shresth / EPA )

Arsenic is one dangerous pollutant that can occur naturally (though it also can be a byproduct of pesticide use or certain kinds of mining), usually ingested via water. In Nepal and other impoverished areas of Asia where arsenic levels are high, low-tech water filters make a huge difference — a jar filled with rusty nails and sand. The ferrous oxide in the nails binds to the arsenic; particles then are filtered out in the sand.

That works for households but not for rice fields, where immense amounts of water are used. As a result, rice grown in some areas of Asia often has unacceptably high arsenic levels — and that includes, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, rice sold in the United States.

When it made the announcement last fall, the FDA said it would expedite further testing of rice, completing the testing by the end of 2012 and releasing the results promptly. But as the Chicago Tribune reports, “promptly” can be a very relative term when it comes to the food-safety agency; it still hasn’t released any results, despite official requests for the information by Consumers Union and the Illinois attorney general.

It’s a touchy situation. Filtration of the amounts of water used for rice paddies would be an enormous, hugely expensive undertaking. How much risk is there to consumers? The answer isn’t entirely known unless the arsenic exposure reaches truly toxic levels that produce symptoms. As far as officials know, there haven’t been such cases as a result of rice consumption in the United States. But a study last year by the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., found that in mice, exposure to arsenic in drinking water, even at the level that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers safe, caused health problems in pregnant mice and growth and development deficits in their offspring.

Is there a way to regulate the arsenic levels in rice when so much of it is out there? Or does it become more like mercury, with consumers advised to limit their consumption of certain kinds of fish? (Consumer Reports already is suggesting limiting rice consumption.)

For now, the FDA has said that people can reduce the amount of arsenic in rice by rinsing it  before cooking. In addition, its preliminary results found lower levels of arsenic in basmati and jasmine rice. Brown rice has more arsenic than white.

But American consumers still need better answers — and faster, please. We’re half a year past the point at which the testing should have been completed; by no one’s measure would this be considered prompt reporting by the FDA.


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