Inorganic arsenic, the form most likely to cause cancer, occurs naturally in the earth and is released into ground water that travels through rocks and soil. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limits the amount of trace arsenic allowable in drinking water to 10 parts per billion (ppb).However, arsenic has also been found in other drinks and foods, for which no safety limit has been set, raising concerns about overexposure through the diet.
Juices and Foods Tainted with Arsenic
This past summer, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a "voluntary suspension" of the arsenic-laced drug Roxarsone, which has been widely used on chickens raised in CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) to control an intestinal parasite.More recently, an investigation into arsenic and lead levels in apple- and grape juice prompted Consumer Reports to call for government standards to limit consumer exposure.Ten percent of the 88 juice samples tested by Consumer Reports had arsenic levels exceeding the U.S. federal drinking-water standard. A quarter of them also had lead levels higher than the 5 ppb limit set for bottled water."The investigation included an analysis of the National Center for Health Statistics' National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) database from 2003 to 2008.The results of that analysis suggest that these juices may be an important contributor to dietary arsenic exposure.Through interviews with physicians and authors of peer-reviewed studies, Consumer Reports also found mounting scientific evidence suggesting that chronic exposure to arsenic and lead even at levels below federal standards for water can result in serious health problems, especially for those who are exposed in the womb or during early childhood. FDA data and other research reveal that arsenic has been detected at disturbing levels in other foods as well.… In addition to juice, foods including chicken, rice, and even baby food have been found to contain arsenic -- sometimes at higher levels than the amounts found in juice ..."In September, Dr. Oz also discussed this issue on The Dr. Oz Show. He claimed to have tested 50 different brands of apple juice, and found they ALL contained high levels of arsenic. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) contested Dr. Oz's findings, stating that his testing was inaccurate because he tested for both inorganic and organic arsenic, the latter of which is considered fairly harmless.
(As a side note, I was recently invited as a guest on The Dr. Oz Show for the third time. During that episode, we covered such issues as vitamin D, CoQ10, blood pressure medications, statins and antidepressants. For more information about that episode, please see thisarticle that delves into those topics in greater detail than I was able to on the show.)
Are Arsenic Levels in Juice a Safety Hazard?
There are currently no official limits set for arsenic in juices, but according to a 2008 FDA hazard assessment, 23 ppb of inorganic arsenic would represent "a potential health risk." However, the Consumers Union (the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports) has warned that this level should NOT be used as a reference point for establishing a safety limit, because it does not take into account the now well-established carcinogenicity of inorganic arsenic.The group has proposed the FDA set the limit for arsenic at three ppb—a far cry from the FDA's stated "level of concern."The FDA has responded to the Consumers Union, indicating that the agency is considering creating a guidance for the permissible level of arsenic in apple juice. In a November 21 letter to the Empire State Consumer Project, the agency states it will collect and analyze up to 90 retail juice samples from across the US by the end of this year. However, the FDA already has data on arsenic in fruit juices. They've been sampling juices for several years, as part of the Total Diet Study (TDS). The results can be found on the FDA's website.In their letter, the FDA states "FDA monitoring has found that total arsenic levels in apple juice are typically low." But is it low enough to protect public health?Their sampling has already revealed that in some instances, the arsenic levels can be quite high. Consumer Reports points out that while the FDA had posted the results of 70 samples over a six-year period, an additional eight samples were not released until late November. All eight samples, which were collected in 2008 and 2009, contained arsenic levels of 23 ppb or higher.The FDA's Total Diet Study program also reveals that between 1991 to 2009, a quarter of the juice samples tested contained 10 ppb of arsenic or higher. Five percent contained 23 ppb or more of arsenic… So while the FDA may be technically correct in its statement that arsenic levels are typically low, their own data still shows that 25 percent of samples test above the EPA's safe water limit, and that's not necessarily negligible. Especially when you consider the increased risks of skin-, lung- and bladder cancer associated with repeated exposure to arsenic.
Juice Drinkers have Higher Arsenic Levels than Non-Juice Drinkers
"We wanted to know whether people who drink juice end up being exposed to more arsenic than those who don't. So we commissioned an analysis of data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), conducted annually by the National Center for Health Statistics… Our analysis was led by Richard Stahlhut, M.D., M.P.H., an environmental health researcher at the University of Rochester with expertise in NHANES data…Stahlhut reviewed NHANES data from 2003 through 2008 from participants tested for total urinary arsenic who reported their food and drink consumption for 24 hours the day before their NHANES visit.Because most ingested arsenic is excreted in urine, the best measure of recent exposure is a urine test... The resulting analysis of almost 3,000 study participants found that those reporting apple-juice consumption had on average 19 percent greater levels of total urinary arsenic than those subjects who did not, and those who reported drinking grape juice had 20 percent higher levels.The results might understate the correlation between juice consumption and urinary arsenic levels because NHANES urinary data exclude children younger than 6, who tend to be big juice drinkers. "The current analysis suggests that these juices may be an important contributor to dietary arsenic exposure," says Keeve Nachman, Ph.D., a risk scientist at the Center for a Livable Future and the Bloomberg School of Public Health, both at Johns Hopkins University. "It would be prudent to pursue measures to understand and limit young children's exposures to arsenic in juice."
The Health Dangers of Arsenic
Unfortunately, the signs and symptoms of chronic arsenic exposure can easily be overlooked or misdiagnosed as something else. For example, early symptoms include:
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Skin discoloration or lesions, including hyperkeratosis
- Chronic fatigue syndromeChronic long-term exposure also increases your risk of:
- Various cancers
- High blood pressure
- Diabetes (A 2008 study linked low-level arsenic exposure to higher prevalence of type 2 diabetes in the US)
- Reproductive problemsAs recommended by Consumer Reports, if you're concerned, or suspect your health problems may be related to arsenic poisoning, ask your doctor to test you to determine your arsenic levels. Just make sure you do not consume any kind of seafood for up to 72 hours prior to the urine test, as fish is high in naturally-occurring arsenic that can throw off your results.Arsenic exposure in utero and during early childhood is particularly problematic, as it can cause lasting harm to children's developing brains, and endocrine- and immune systems. For example:
- A 2006 study found that Chileans exposed to high levels (peaking at 1,000 ppb) of naturally-occurring arsenic in drinking water in utero and during early childhood had a six times higher lung cancer death rate compared to Chileans living in areas with lower levels of arsenic in their water. And their mortality rate in their 30s and 40s from another form of lung disease was almost 50 times higher than for people without that arsenic exposure.
- A 2004 study showed children exposed to arsenic in drinking water at levels above 5 ppb had lower IQ scores. Earlier studies have linked chronic arsenic exposure to a range of cognitive dysfunctions, including learning disabilities, memory problems, poor concentration, and peripheral and central neuropathies.
- A study published in 2011 examined the long-term effects of low-level exposure on more than 300 rural Texans whose groundwater was estimated to have arsenic at median levels below the federal drinking-water standard. It also found that exposure was related to poor scores in language, memory, and other brain functions.
Sources of Arsenic
Naturally-occurring arsenic in groundwater is one of the most common sources of exposure, and those with private wells may face greater risks than those on public systems. If you have a well, you would be well advised to have your water tested and treated accordingly. For example, in Maine, where almost 50 percent of the population relies on private wells, the US Geological Survey has occasionally found arsenic levels in well water as high as 3,100 ppb! Disturbingly, tests have also found very high levels of inorganic arsenic in a variety of baby foods.For example, according to Consumer Reports:
- Last year, Brian Jackson, Ph.D., an analytical chemist and research associate professor at Dartmouth College reported finding up to 23 ppb of arsenic in lab tests of name-brand jars of baby food. Inorganic arsenic represented 70 to 90 percent of those total amounts.
- A 2004 study conducted by FDA scientists in Cincinnati found arsenic levels as high as 24 ppb in baby food, with sweet potatoes, carrots, green beans, and peaches containing only the inorganic form.
- A 2008 UK study found levels of inorganic arsenic in 20-ounce packets of infant rice cereals ranged from 60 to 160 ppb.The reason why rice frequently contains high levels of inorganic arsenic is twofold. First, rice is very efficient at absorbing arsenic from the soil, and second, in the US, rice is frequently grown on land previously used to grow cotton, on which arsenic-based pesticides were heavily used. According to research by Andrew Meharg, professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, American-grown rice has among the highest average inorganic arsenic levels in the world. US rice contains nearly three times more arsenic than Basmati rice imported from Nepal, India, and Pakistan. Egyptian rice has the lowest inorganic arsenic levels of all.
Water Filtration—A Must for Clean Pure Water…
If you have well water, it would be prudent to have your water tested for arsenic and other contaminants. If you have public water, you can get local drinking water information from the EPA.One of the most comprehensive test kits I've found is from National Testing Laboratories. We have these test kits available at cost, a significant discount from the standard online price. If you're interested, you can purchase a test kit for Well Water or for City Water. Alternatively, you can also locate a certified lab by contacting your local health department or call the federal Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791.In general, most water supplies contain a number of potentially hazardous contaminants, from fluoride, to drugs and disinfection byproducts (DBP's), just to name a few. You can get a good idea of what types of contaminants could be in your drinking water right now by viewing this awesome graphic from GOOD Environment (reprinted with permission.) It gives you a look at the five most and least polluted water systems in America (in cities with more than 100,000 population), including pointing out the pollutants of largest concern.I strongly recommend using a high quality water filtration system unless you can verify the purity of your water. To be absolutely certain you are getting the purest water you can, you'll want to filter the water both at the point of entry and at the point of use. This means filtering all the water that comes into the house, and then filtering again at the kitchen sink. I currently use a whole house carbon-based water filtration system, and prior to this I used reverse osmosis (RO) to purify my water.You can read more about water filtration here to help you make a decision about what type of water filtration system will be best for you and your family. Since most water sources are now severely polluted, the issue of water filtration and purification couldn't be more important.
How to Protect Yourself and Your Family from Arsenic
Aside from your water supply, foods and beverages are also common sources of arsenic. Here are some common-sense guidelines to limit your and your family's exposure:
- Limit your child's juice consumption. This is a general guideline for optimal health anyway, as juices contain high amounts of fructose that if taken in large quantities can cause very serious health problems.
- Buy organic, pastured chicken. Organic standards do not allow organically-raised chickens to be given conventional feed grown with synthetic pesticides.
- Avoid processed baby food. Not only are many baby foods contaminated with potentially toxic chemicals, they also tend to be loaded with sugar and trans fats, and some may even contain genetically engineered ingredients.Instead, make your own baby food using all-organic ingredients. Simply cooking a squash or sweet potato, mashing it up and freezing it in an ice cube tray is an easy way to have ready-made multiple servings available for the rest of the week.Egg yolk is another healthy food that requires little preparation. According to the Weston A. Price Foundation, egg yolk should be your baby's first solid food, starting at approximately 4 months, whether your baby is breastfed or formula-fed. Egg yolks from free-range hens will contain the special long-chain fatty acids so critical for the optimal development of your child's brain and nervous system. (However, the egg whites may cause an allergic reaction so they're best avoided until your child is at least one year old.)