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Can arsenic in rice cause poisoning?

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Arsenic in rice being studied by the FDA

The FDA is taking a closer look at arsenic in rice to find out if the low-levels found in the food can harm human health. What are symptoms of arsenic poisoning or toxicity?

The toxin is found naturally in our soil and air; in pesticides, some fruits and vegetables and in tobacco. It has also been found in orange juice.

Now the FDA wants to learn more about levels of arsenic in rice and how it could impact our health.

The agency has tested 1,300 sample of rice and rice products for both total arsenic and inorganic arsenic, finding there is no 'immediate' risk to human health from the levels they have discovered.

The organic form passes through the body, but the inorganic form can linger, potentially harming our health.

What are the symptoms of arsenic poisoning?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), organic arsenic is "highly toxic". In addition to cancer, long-term exposure can cause skin lesions, heart disease, diabetes and heart disease.

Signs of arsenic poisoning include skin cancer and skin lesions. Long-term exposure and toxicity "...are usually observed in the skin, and include pigmentation changes, skin lesions and hard patches on the palms and soles of the feet (hyperkeratosis). These occur after a minimum exposure of approximately five years and may be a precursor to skin cancer."

Acute poisoning from arsenic causes abdominal pain, diarrhea and vomiting. Severe cases causes difficulty swallowing, muscle cramping, hair loss, a 'garlic odor' on the breath, a metallic taste in the mouth, excessive saliva and even convulsions.

If you think you have symptoms of arsenic toxicity, speak with your doctor for testing.

Are the levels found really 'safe'?

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The average levels of inorganic arsenic found in rice by the FDA ranged from 2.6 to 7.2 micrograms per serving, leading the FDA to determine eating rice is 'safe'.

But it's important to remember that eating rice isn't the only way we can be exposed to the toxin.

The FDA analysis also found the highest levels of arsenic was in brown rice that we're encouraged to eat because of the health benefits compared to white rice.

The least amount was found in instant rice, infant cereal and infant rice formulas.

Suzanne C. Fitzpatrick, Ph.D., the senior advisor for toxicology in FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) said the study is just the first step in analyzing health risks associated with eating rice and rice products that contain arsenic.

We don't know yet whether eating rice and rice products will cause cancer or other health problems. Consumers should be aware that eating anything in large amounts versus a variety of foods can lead to health problems.

A 2012 Consumer Report found people who reported consuming two or more rice products had levels of arsenic in their body that was 70 percent higher than those who had no rice in an analysis of 3,633 study participants.

"These are the next steps. To look at exposure levels, to analyze the risk, and determine how to minimize that risk for the overall safety of consumers, including vulnerable groups like children and pregnant women," Fitzpatrick said in a press release.

She also said since arsenic is a natural compound it would be difficult to get it out of our food. She also says you can't just pull rice off the market.

The FDA analysis included a wide range of rice products from across the country including cereals, cakes, beverages, snack bars and infant and toddler foods.

The investigators also analyzed cancer rates among people in China and other areas where consumption of rice is high to compare the results to American consumption of the food.

The agency plans to make recommendations after a review of the risks, which they say will take several months. They also plan to take additional sampling of infant and toddler rice products in addition to looking at whether some groups, such as pregnant women, are more vulnerable to health harm from arsenic in rice. Arsenic is a known toxin and the FDA is just beginning to assess the health harm to consumers.