Langan Denhard and Brandel France de Bravo, MPH
Arsenic—it’s a scary word with dangerous connotations. Recent studies show that arsenic is present in many everyday beverages and food. In response, Congressman Frank Pallone and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro introduced a bill named Arsenic Prevention and Protection from Lead Exposure in Juice (APPLE) in early February 2012. If it becomes law, it would require the FDA to set limits within the next two years on the amount of arsenic and lead allowed in fruit juices and other foods.
What are the dangers of chronic arsenic exposure?
There are two types of arsenic: organic and inorganic. Organic arsenic is usually non-toxic and harmless when consumed. However, the FDA has identified two strains of organic arsenic that can cause cancer: dimethyl arsenic acid (DMA) and monomethyl arsenic acid (MMA). Recent testing by the FDA found small amounts of these strains in apple juice.
Inorganic arsenic has been linked to increases in bladder, skin, and lung cancers when consumed in high quantities. It also increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, and weakens the body’s immune system, making it harder to fight respiratory infections and flu. Exposure to high levels of arsenic can cause diarrhea, fatigue, nausea, skin discoloration, and in rare instances, death. Very little research has examined what happens to children exposed to low levels of inorganic arsenic over a long period. A 2004 study led by Columbia University’s Joseph Graziano, PhD, suggests that children who consumed water with arsenic levels above 5 parts per billion (ppb) showed evidence of lowered IQ. 
What are the current laws in place concerning the levels of arsenic in food and drink?
There is surprisingly little regulation on the levels of arsenic allowed in food and drink. According to Michael Taylor, deputy commissioner of the FDA, 23 ppb is the “level of concern” for arsenic concentration in fruit juices but there is no legal limit. Information on the FDA site states, “[The] FDA is collecting all relevant information to evaluate and determine if setting guidance or other level for inorganic arsenic in apple juice is appropriate.”
The FDA and the EPA revised the federal limit for arsenic allowable in public water and bottled water to 10 ppb in 2006, noting that the safest level would be 0 ppb. States have the authority to mandate limits below 10 ppb, and New Jersey has the strictest limits, with a maximum level of 5 ppb. State officials caution against consuming or cooking with water at any higher concentration.
Do my family members consume arsenic?
In November 2011, Consumer Reports completed a study of 88 samples of apple and grape juice that found that 10% had arsenic levels surpassing the drinking-water standards. Of this, most of the arsenic found was inorganic. A sample Walgreen’s grape juice was found to have an arsenic concentration of 24.7 ppb—more than double than the legal limit for drinking water—and most of it (82.9%) was inorganic. Of the two harmful types of organic arsenic, MMA was found in higher concentrations in apple juice whereas DMA was more likely to be found in grape juice. Consumer Reports also found that 35% of children younger than 5 drink more juice than is recommended by pediatricians.
On February 2012, another study, led by a research group from Dartmouth College, presented troubling new findings. In an effort to cut down on the use of high fructose corn syrup as a sweetener, some manufacturers have been making the transition to organic brown rice syrup (OBRS). Because arsenic-based pesticides were once used in rice production, and rice plants are extremely effective in taking in the leftover arsenic from the soil, using syrup made from organic brown rice has resulted in arsenic in infant formula and other commonly used products.
Currently, the only formula brand using OBRS is Nature’s One, which produces Baby’s Only Organic Dairy Toddler Formula and Baby’s Only Organic Soy Toddler Formula. These products were tested against 15 formulas that did not contain OBRS, and it was found that Nature’s One’s products had more than 20 times as much arsenic as the other brands. In a statement published on its web site, the company says, “An independent, third party testing laboratory completed testing on organic brown rice syrup used in formulas produced in 2011. The testing proved there are no safety concerns using the organic brown rice syrup ingredient.” The company has not released test results to the public, “to protect against inaccurate interpretations.”
Cereal bars and “energy shots” are other possible daily sources of arsenic. A little less than half of all cereal bars contain organic brown rice syrup, and when tested, those with OBRS listed in the top five ingredients had the highest concentration of arsenic. At least half of the arsenic tested was inorganic and any organic arsenic was classified as DMA, one of the two harmful forms of organic arsenic.
The Bottom Line
The drinking water limit on arsenic was set at a low level because water is frequently consumed on a daily basis throughout one’s life. For that reason, higher arsenic levels in foods consumed less often are of less concern. Fortunately, arsenic is usually excreted within 2-3 days of consumption. Nevertheless, some experts believe that the arsenic level allowed in water may be too lax, and additional sources of arsenic can add to those risks, especially for children and pregnant women. We need more research to know whether or not it is safe to consume low-levels of arsenic every day.
Meanwhile, the two things you can do are:
1) make sure your drinking water meets the federal limit of 10 ppb of arsenic, especially if you have a private well or live in a rural area, and
2) protect your children, whose bodies are smaller and still developing, from unnecessary exposure to arsenic.
It is especially important to protect infants from arsenic exposure until further research is conducted, so avoid formulas and baby foods containing rice products as a main ingredient. Most pediatricians advise against giving your children juice regularly because even when it has no added sugar, it delivers a lot of calories with little nutrition. The presence of arsenic is another reason to ration the juice!
If you are worried about your water supply, call your local health department for a list of labs certified to test for arsenic. The cost of testing ranges from $20-$35 NSF International provides extensive information on how to treat your home water.
1Congresswoman Rosa L DeLauro. US House of Representatives. Congressman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) Fight to Protect Children from Arsenic in Apple Juice. Congresswoman Rosa L DeLauro: Representing the Third District of Connecticut. 8 Feb. 2012. Web. 28 Feb. 2012.
2“Arsenic in Your Juice:How Much Is Too Much? Federal Limits Don’t Exist.”ConsumerReports.org. Consumers Union, Jan. 2012. Web. 28 Feb. 2012.
3“Questions & Answers: Apple Juice and Arsenic.” FDA: US Food and Drug Administration. US Department of Health and Human Services, 16 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 Feb. 2012. <http://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/ucm271595.htm>.
4“Basic Information about Arsenic in Drinking Water.” EPA: US Environmental Protection Agency. EPA, 26 Jan. 2012. Web. 01 Mar. 2012. <http://water.epa.gov/drink/contaminants/basicinformation/arsenic.cfm>.
5Buchanan, Gary A. “NJDEP New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.” The Official Web Site for The State of New Jersey. 1 Nov. 2010. Web. 01 Mar. 2012. <http://www.state.nj.us/dep/dsr/arsenic/guide.htm>.
6“Arsenic in Your Juice:How Much Is Too Much? Federal Limits Don’t Exist.”ConsumerReports.org. Consumers Union, Jan. 2012. Web. 28 Feb. 2012.
7Jackson, Brian P., Vivien F. Taylor, Margaret R. Karagas, and Kathryn L. Cottingham. “Arsenic, Organic Foods, and Brown Rice Syrup.” Environmental Health Perspectives (2012). Web. 21 Feb. 2012.
8“ORGANIC BROWN RICE SYRUP CONCERNS.” Nature’s One . Nature’s One, Inc. Web. 21 Feb. 2012. <http://www.naturesone.com/brown-rice/>.
9Jackson, Brian P., Vivien F. Taylor, Margaret R. Karagas, and Kathryn L. Cottingham. “Arsenic, Organic Foods, and Brown Rice Syrup.” Environmental Health Perspectives (2012). Web. 21 Feb. 2012.
10“Arsenic in Private Drinking-Water Wells.” Division of Toxicology and Environmental Medicine. ATSDR, 6 Aug. 2008. Web. 01 Mar. 2012. <http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/arsenic/>.