Rice and arsenic - what is going on?

In the first of two articles nutritionist Micki Rose considers the cruel irony that, for allergic people trying to avoid dairy products and wheat/gluten, eating more rice is increasing their exposure to the poison, arsenic.

You couldn’t make it up really, could you? Millions of us who choose to eat more healthily have swapped wheat for rice. More millions have had to eschew dairy, wheat and soya because of allergy and have chosen ‘healthier’ rice alternatives. And what do we get – a greater risk of exposure to arsenic, a heavy metal contaminant linked to all manner of illnesses? You’d laugh if it wasn’t so very unfunny.

Is it true? Why is arsenic more prevalent in rice? How do we find out if we or our children have high levels? Most importantly, what can we do to reduce them if we have and limit our exposure in the future?

In this first part, we’ll consider how arsenic is making its way into rice and, in the second, we’ll take a look at how that affects us personally and what we can do about it. 

What’s The Problem?

The Food Standards Agency recently issued a press release advising not to give babies and toddlers under four rice milk as an alternative to cow’s milk, formula or breast milk. The advice was based on a study of arsenic levels in rice drinks. At first, I couldn’t help having the rather cynical thought that somehow the formula manufacturers and farmers had nobbled the government. But then I looked into the situation and found there is indeed a problem endemic with rice.

Let’s get this into perspective straight away. This is an enormous health crisis for hundreds of thousands of people across the world whose lives are being devastated by extremely high arsenic levels in their rice. It is a comparatively minor worry for us, but because we are eating more rice due to allergies and the rice used to make our foods may be coming from countries which have this problem, we certainly can’t ignore the issue.

The FSA tested 60 rice drink samples and found a low level of arsenic in each one, although none were over the current legal limit set. Children are at greater risk than adults because of the ratio of arsenic consumed to body weight - adults are bigger and drinking a half pint for us is not such a big deal. They added that children who had already been on rice milk weren’t likely to suffer any long-term harmful effects, but that steps should be taken to minimise any risk. All well and good but what if your child can’t tolerate cow’s, goat’s or soya milks? 

We should note, importantly, that this new advice does not include baby rice or other rice products since an FSA study in 2007 found them to contain safe levels. I find this a bit odd given the fact that, as we shall see, rice from many countries is high in absorbed arsenic. Other experts have issued concerns about products other than rice milk and I personally think it must come down to where the rice has come from and how much of it we are eating.

There is some concern that because the arsenic tends to be in the bran of the rice, health foods like brown rice, rice bran, malted and fermented rice are worse than white rice foods. However, it seems that rice milks are the greatest concern because of the amount drunk, especially by young children. As I said, you couldn’t make it up.

Where Does The Arsenic Come From?

Arsenic occurs naturally in all plants, animals, the sea, soil and fresh water; we can’t avoid it. There are two chemically-different forms of arsenic: organic and inorganic. Both are easily absorbed, but the inorganic form is thought to be far more harmful. It is believed to accumulate in body organs, is classified as a carcinogen and may affect different chemical and metabolic processes in the body.

But it isn’t just about what occurs naturally. Our industrial revolution also has a lot to answer for. Since we got all techy, our environmental load of heavy metal toxins has increased substantially. We mine, refine, smelt, galvanise, manufacture and burn heavy metals all the time and consequently we find ever more of them in our drinking water, soil and air. Arsenic has been used as a component of pesticides, fungicides animal growth-promoters, preservatives in wooden timbers, wallpaper paste and carpets, and much is said to leach into ground water from waste sites and power plants. Luckily, our bodies are equipped to cope with normal levels, but I do wonder if the load is becoming too much as time goes on.

Fish and shellfish are said to be a significant source because of what’s leached into the water table from industrial and agricultural use, although the Health Protection Agency (HPA), advises that most of what occurs in fish is organic and therefore “There is no evidence that eating fish poses a health risk from arsenic.” Cigarette smoking is a notable source too, and the metal is also used in the manufacture of glass, ceramics, electronic components and alloys.

Two of the most significant sources for the world’s population are drinking water and rice contaminated with the heavy metal. For us lucky ones in Western countries like the UK, our water is treated and we eat a comparatively small amount of rice.

Clearly, those populations who eat a great deal of rice and have untreated water are most at risk, and it seems that countries such as Bangladesh are having real problems. It is known as the world’s hot-spot for arsenic. Why?

All cereals absorb toxic metals to some extent, and there is data to suggest that high arsenic in infants corresponds to the introduction of a cereal diet. But it appears that rice is particularly good at it. In countries like Bangladesh, the problem is the irrigation techniques used for the rice paddies. An article in the New Scientist put it well: “In a terrible irony, arsenic entered the Bangladeshi water supply when UNICEF and other international agencies sank millions of tube wells to provide clean drinking water. But the wells tapped into groundwater contaminated by arsenic from sedimentary deposits deep below Bangladesh.” It seems no-one thought to check the water quality and it was tragically only after many died they discovered the soils and rock strata around Bangladesh are massively high in the toxic metal. Open well water is quite free-flowing whereas bore-well water used for irrigation in dry seasons is often stagnant for long periods of time and therefore the metal accumulates even more. Rice grown there now has a very high proportion of inorganic arsenic and the population is still suffering.

Other countries have other problems. Even in the UK some rural houses are served by bore holes and regular testing of the water is vital. In the US, it is thought that high arsenic levels in the soil are a long-term result of pesticides used by the cotton farming industry. In fact, when growing rice was first attempted in these regions, it was stunted by a disease called ‘straighthead’ caused by excess arsenic. To get over the problem, new rice breeds were cultivated that could better withstand the high arsenic levels. Daft when you know that rice is especially good at taking it up – the rice might have grown better but I’m not so sure about the people who ate it!

Which Rice is Best?

Professor Andrew Meharg from Aberdeen University has worked with the FSA on this issue. He is quoted as saying: “Between different growing regions/countries, total As [Arsenic] content can vary by fivefold, with Himalayan (N. India, N. Pakistan, and Nepal) rice being the lowest and US, EU and As-groundwater impacted Bangladesh rice being the highest.”

Despite such a high-rice diet in China, the Chinese population has a surprisingly low intake of arsenic because they have the best arsenic controls for rice of any country. This rather suggests rice from China would be a safer bet for us too.

Another Professor Meharg study suggests that rice from the US, France, Italy and Bangladesh had the highest levels of inorganic arsenic tested, with about 30 per cent of American long grain rice samples found to contain levels above the Chinese strict standards. He suggested that rice from India and Egypt had the lowest levels, with basmati rice the best type.

Indian, Pakistani, Nepalese, Chinese, Egyptian, Thai

American, European (especially Italian and French), Bangladeshi

It seems, then, that the whole issue has come about because rice is itself highly adept at absorbing natural arsenic and that this has been greatly exacerbated by contamination mainly from arsenic-laden ground water, mining, processing and pesticide use. Hence any rice products made from contaminated rice would be higher than they should be in arsenic.

Stay tuned… in the next article, I will suggest ways to limit your risk, test your own arsenic levels and bring high levels down.

Micki Rose can be contacted at the Pure Health Clinic.

First published in March 2010


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