My Take on Arsenic and Brown Rice

You may have seen headlines based on a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives about arsenic and organic brown rice syrup. Many of the headlines mention concern about the implications for some infant formula and food bars. Here’s my take:

I serve on the board of Healthy Child Healthy World where we recognize the important effects environmental chemicals have on children. I’m glad that studies are being conducted regarding the safety of food — especially food for babies.

This new study is not a reason to panic, but it does underline the need for the FDA to set safety levels for arsenic in food and beverages. The EPA has set 10 ppb as the level for inorganic arsenic in drinking water. Regularly drinking water with this level of arsenic over time might result in a lifetime cancer risk of 0.05% (about 0.005% per ppb).”

This study also underlines the importance of organic agriculture. Plants, and the animals that eat them, take in much of what’s in the soil. Rice in particular should be grown in healthy soil, as it is very efficient at this.

An important source of too much arsenic is the aftermath of arsenical pesticides leftover from decades of chemical farming. They were used on conventional cotton throughout much of the southern US, and the arsenic remains in the soil long afterwards — even after switching the fields to rice and switching to organic farming methods. Rice grown in California usually has much less arsenic. Some countries still use arsenical pesticides on their crops.

Small amounts of arsenic can be found naturally in food, water, soil, and even air. Rice is the main dietary source of arsenic for many Americans. Whatever arsenic is present can be concentrated in rice syrups.

Babies are more susceptible than adults to arsenic and other toxins.

For now, I recommend that rice not be the primary source of calories for babies (the key is variety), and that when practical whatever rice they do get comes primarily from California and/or is adequately tested for arsenic (with technology at least able to detect 10 ppb). Avoid conventional rice from countries still using arsenical pesticides.

And, of course, I will welcome safety limits for arsenic in food and beverages that take the health of babies and pregnant women into account.

Jackson BP, Taylor VF, Karagas MR, Punshon T, Cottingham KL, 2012 Arsenic, Organic Foods, and Brown Rice Syrup. Environ Health Perspect doi:10.1289/ehp.1104619

Published on: February 16, 2012
About the Author
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Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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