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If rice truly is an important source of arsenic exposure, then people who eat rice should have greater arsenic levels in their body, on average, than people who do not. To find out, we analyzed data collected annually by the National Center for Health Statistics for the National health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). The survey contains information on the health and nutrition of a nationally representative sample of the U.S. population, based on interviews and physical exams, which may include blood and urine tests.

A urine test is the best measure of recent arsenic exposure because most of it is excreted in urine within a few days after ingestion

A urine test is the best measure of recent arsenic exposure because most of it is excreted in urine within a few days after ingestion

Our data analysis was led by Richard Stahlhut, M.D., M.P.H., an environmental health researcher at the University of Rochester, who is experienced in NHANES analysis, and Ana Navas-Acien, M.D., Ph.D., a physician-epidemiologist with expertise in arsenic research at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. Working with our statisticians, they reviewed NHANES data from 2003 through 2010 from participants age 6 or older whose urine was tested for arsenic and who had reported what they’d had to eat or drink from midnight to midnight they day before their examination. A urine test is the best measure of recent arsenic exposure because most of it is excreted in urine within a few days after ingestion.

Because seafood contains a form of organic arsenic called arsenobetaine, generally considered nontoxic to humans we then excluded from our analysis anyone who reported eating seafood during the 24-hour period and those with detectable levels of arsenobertaine in their urine. The remaining participants therefore were more likely to have had exposure to inorganic arsenic, which poses the greatest potential health risks.

Our study shows people who eat rice have higher arsenic levels.

Our resulting analysis of 3,633 study participants found that on average, people who reported eating one rice food item had total urinary arsenic levels 44 percent greater than those who had not, and people who reported consuming two or more rice products had levels 70 percent higher than those who had no rice.

Our study shows people who eat rice have higher arsenic levels.

Our study shows people who eat rice have higher arsenic levels.

 “Despite our taking into account other common sources of arsenic, and no matter which way we sliced the data, we see a very strong association between rice consumption and arsenic exposure,” says Stahlhut, who along with Navas-Acien led a similar analysis of NHANES data for our January 2012 article on arsenic in juice. That analysis found that study participants who reported drinking apple or grape juice had total urinary arsenic levels that were on average nearly 20 percent higher than those who didn’t. Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of us, urged the FDA to set a 3ppb limit for total arsenic in apple and grape juice.

“These findings show that rice is an important source of arsenic exposure for the U.S population,” says Navas-Acien. The associations were even stronger for rice compared with juice and are consistent with the relatively high levels of arsenic, including inorganic arsenic, measured in rice sampled, she says. She says the results underscore the need for monitoring arsenic in food and establishing safety standards. A new study of NHANES data from Dartmouth researchers also shows that rice consumption can contribute to increased urinary arsenic levels in children.

What should be done

Consumers Union believes a standard for arsenic should be set for rice and industry should accelerate efforts to reduce arsenic levels in rice. They should also develop types of rice that take up less arsenic, and use rice with the lowest possible arsenic in products for young children, such as infant rice cereal. Our scientists are also asking regulators to prohibit agricultural practices that may lead to increase in arsenic in rice:

·         The EPA should phase out use of pesticides containing arsenic.

·         The USDA and the EPA should end the use of arsenic-laden manure as fertilizer.

·         The FDA should ban the deeding of arsenic-containing drugs and animal byproducts to animals.

The EPA should phase out use of pesticides containing arsenic.

The EPA should phase out use of pesticides containing arsenic.

To find out more about what Consumers Union is doing on the subject and to get involved, go to ConsumersUnion.org/arsenic. On the international stage, a group advising the World Health Organization is meeting in 2014 to consider proposed arsenic standards for rice. Limits of 200 ppb (inorganic) for white rice and 300 ppb (total or inorganic) for brown rice are under discussion.

After the concerns raised by our juice story, the FDA says it is confident in the overall safety of apple juice. “FDA has made significant progress in developing a proposed action level for arsenic in apple juice and is nearing completion of this work,” the agency says in a statement.

The FDA also says it is studying arsenic in rice and rice products to determine the levels and types of arsenic typically found and to identify ways to reduce it.

“The need for a standard for arsenic in food is long overdue,” says Trudy Bialic, director of public affairs for PCC Natural Markets, a Seattle-area chain that is America’s largest food co-op. “Certainly there are excellent and committed people in FDA’s ranks, but it’s shameful the agency has not addressed this problem more systematically, leaving us to figure it out on our own to protect ourselves”

Limit your exposure

Limit your exposure

To reduce arsenic exposure, consider limiting rice in your family’s diet to the quantities noted here. Our scientists based these recommendations on a person eating just one product per day or per week over a lifetime. If you eat more than one type, your risk would increase. Vary your diet to include non-rice products. If you exceed these limits one week, you can cut back the next

 

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