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Arsenic in rice: is it safe?

September 24, 2012

Last week, Consumer Reports issued a warning to consumers regarding potentially harmful levels of arsenic found in rice and rice products. The Food and Drug Administration also released preliminary data from an in-depth study which seemed to be in line with those conclusions. But, don’t run to the pantry to purge your home of your favorite cereal just yet.

What is arsenic?

Arsenic is a chemical substance found in our environment that can be naturally occurring (due to the erosion of rocks or volcanic eruptions) or can occur due to the use of arsenic-containing pesticides. Low levels of arsenic are found in air, soil and water, which means that it can also be taken up into plants as they grow.

There are two types of arsenic: organic and inorganic. Don’t confuse these with the food labeling use of those terms; this refers to the makeup of the molecular compound. It is the exposure to high levels of the inorganic form that over time is known to contribute to health problems.

What are the health risks associated with arsenic?

Prolonged exposure to high levels of arsenic may increase a person’s likelihood of developing skin, bladder and lung cancers as well as heart disease. However, low levels which are consumed in a variety of fruits, vegetables and grains are considered safe.

Should I be concerned about arsenic in rice?

The short answer: we don’t know yet.

The FDA cautions that it is too soon to draw conclusions from the available data. The agency routinely monitors the levels of arsenic and other potentially harmful substances in our food and drinks. Currently, there is an ongoing study that is specifically looking at the levels of arsenic in rice and whether there are harmful health effects associated with rice consumption. The results of this study will be available at the end of 2012. At that time, experts will be able to make a well-informed recommendation to the public.

What should I do to keep my family safe?

The American Academy of Pediatrics as well as the FDA urge consumers to await recommendations that are based on solid, scientific data. They are not suggesting that the public make changes in their food consumption until the necessary information is available to guide their recommendations.

In the meantime, the AAP recommends that parents offer their children a wide variety of foods, including those made from oats and wheat. This is not only a healthy nutritional recommendation, but the variety also minimizes any potential consequence from consuming one particular food.

For more information, visit the FDA’s website: