Is Arsenic-tainted Rice Harmful for Humans?

A decade ago, scientists realized that the rice plant was abnormally effective at engrossing toxic forms of arsenic from soil and water — but no one had directly connected eating rice with actual harm to health.

Arsenic-Tainted Rice is Harmful to Humans

There are no federal limits for the quantity of arsenic that’s suitable in food. So it’s unattainable to know if eating arsenic at these levels is a trouble. Popular rice products including white rice, brown rice, natural rice baby cereal, and rice breakfast cereals, were all found to restrain arsenic, a potent carcinogen that can also be injurious to a child’s developing brain.

Samples were tested from a diversity of rice sources including total brown rice and white rice, infant cereals, energy bars, cookies, pasta, pastries and even alcoholic beverages made with rice, but the FDA did not identify which brands were tested. On average, the inorganic arsenic, which is more dangerous than organic arsenic, ranged from 2.6 to 7.2 micrograms per serving of rice grains, according to Reuters. “Instant rice was at the low end of the range and brown rice came in at the high end.”

The low levels of arsenic don’t appear to pose any immediate health risks to consumers, the FDA concluded, but the agency is going to look at the effects of long-term exposure to arsenic.

Arsenic-tainted rice increases risk of cancer

Rice tainted with high levels of arsenic has been linked to genetic damage that heightens the risk of cancer. Naturally happening arsenic in water is a long-known health hazard, particularly in Bangladesh, where millions of people depend on wells drilled in the 1970s.

Scientists have also fretted about rice grown in contaminated groundwater. But new research is the first to have found proof of a risk.

Researchers at the University of Manchester in England and the Indian Institute of Chemical Biology in Calcutta carried out a study with the help of 417 villagers in West Bengal. They asked the volunteers to provide details about their lifestyle and the amount of rice they ate, and to provide samples of cooked rice and their urine.

The researchers sifted through the urine samples to extract cells from the lining of the urinary tract, which were then analysed for genetic signatures called micronuclei. Micronuclei are tiny pieces of DNA that are left over from when a cell replicates and fails to copy its genetic code properly.

Previous research has found that the more frequently cells make a mistake in copying the code, the greater the risk that they will become cancerous. A higher count of micronuclei is thus a barometer of the risk.

Where does the arsenic come from?

Arsenic is a naturally happening element found in both soil and water. Natural arsenic is the principal source for the inorganic arsenic found in rice. There are several suggestions that, in the United States, rice grown in southeastern states is higher in arsenic than that found in other parts of the country because the crop is often grown in old cotton fields where arsenic based pesticides were widely used. But most of the contamination is essentially a result of geology. Some excellent maps of arsenic contamination of both ground water and soil in the U.S. are displayed here. Naturally happening arsenic appears to be concentrated in the United States and parts of South America and Asia. As where rice is grown turns out to be significant, some experts are recommending geographic labeling.

Finally, Rice takes up arsenic directly from soil and water, so in terms of arsenic concentrations, there’s typically no real difference between crops grown organically and those grown by conventional methods.