What would you do if you discovered that the food you were eating was toxic?
Recent news broadcasts have uncovered disturbing truths about arsenic being detected in products consumed regularly by American citizens.
In December of 2011, KY3 News broadcasted news of dangerous levels of the chemical in apple juice, followed by more reports this September of high arsenic levels found in rice.
Reports such as these bring up logical questions, such as how arsenic gets into food and beverages, what kind of adverse health effects it may cause, and what consumers can do to protect themselves.
The Department Head of the Darr School of Agriculture, Anson Elliott, helped answer some of these concerns.
“Arsenic is an element, just like aluminum or iron,” Elliott said. “It’s an element, but we think of it as a poison.”
Just like other heavy metals listed on the periodic table, arsenic is toxic to humans if it is too high in concentration, according to Elliott.
“We take aspirin by the tons, yet it, too, is toxic,” Elliott said. “Everything has a toxicity; it’s just a matter of amount.”
According to the FDA’s official website, long-term exposure to high levels of arsenic has been linked to skin, bladder and lung cancer, as well as heart disease.
What constitutes a high level of arsenic?
The FDA has not yet specified a certain amount as being dangerous, but they are currently working to further investigate the effects.
In the meantime, Elliott said consumers need to be more cautious of children and individuals of lower weight who may be more affected by levels of arsenic found in food.
How does arsenic contaminate consumer products?
Of course, many consumers are probably wondering how arsenic ended up in their rice in the first place.
“Arsenic is not just in a bottle,” Elliott said. “It’s in the soil. It’s in the water that we drink. It’s in the air. There’s arsenic all around us.”
Contamination of rice is a result of both natural metals in the soil and arsenic-containing insecticides that were banned in the 1980s.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the banned insecticides have managed to remain in the soil for more than 45 years and have become what is more commonly referred to as inorganic arsenic — a known carcinogen.
Brown rice has been found to contain higher levels of arsenic because the outer hull of the rice accumulates significantly more arsenic from the soil. When the hull is peeled off, revealing the white rice, naturally, the individual consuming it ingests less arsenic.
According to the EPA, arsenic is also present in our environment due to human actions. It is used in paints, dyes, metals, drugs, soaps, fertilizers and semi-conductors found in electronics like radios, computers and telephones.
The federal government limits the amount of arsenic found in drinking water, but there is no such limit for food yet.
How can I make sure my food is safe?
The best way to ensure food products are safe for eating is to know from where the food came and how it was grown.
For students, if buying rice at the closest Walmart is the most convenient or only option, practicing safe food preparation is suggested.
“I try to find common sense solutions to all of this and not overreact,” Elliot said.
Elliott suggests mixing rice with other grains to dilute the arsenic levels or substituting brown rice, which was found to have higher levels of arsenic, for white rice.
He also said it’s important to wash your food well, making sure to get rid of as much pesticide residue and dirt that may be left on the skin of any fruits, vegetables or rice.
What is the FDA doing to ensure food safety?
The FDA has taken several steps to inform and protect the public from dangers associated with arsenic contamination. The agency is increasing their testing of rice and rice products and once more than 1,000 rice products have been analyzed, they plan to release the information and update their health recommendations accordingly.
They are also working alongside other government agencies such as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the World Health Organization (WHO) to further investigate the health risks and possible solutions.