What's Arsenic Doing in My Rice, and What Can I Do About It?

There is arsenic in my rice. Not just any arsenic, the inorganic trivalent form that is known to be carcinogenic. And I seem to be eating a lot of it: Rice comes to me not only in my Chinese take-out and my sushi rolls, but in breakfast cereals, crackers, and the baby foods I used to offer so liberally to my children. Now that we've gone gluten free, we've started to rely on rice flour in our baking as a substitute for wheat.

Okay. Deep breath. Let's figure out how much arsenic we're talking about here. After all, arsenic is pervasive in our drinking water, so we've been living with it all our lives.

Lemont rice

Consumer Reports, which did the latest study, lists arsenic content in uncooked rice, ranging from 55 to 568 ppb, or parts per billion. Reckoned by weight, 1 ppb means there is 1 microgram of arsenic in a kilogram of rice. Of these amounts, the proportion of the worrisome organic arsenic ranges from 11% to 87%,

If I cook rice for dinner, our servings come to about 50g per person, so depending on what rice I cook, each member of my family on average could ingest up to 10 micrograms of inorganic arsenic per person.

Arsenic was a convenient poison used to despatch rats and unpopular family members. The lethal dose for trivalent arsenic, or arsenic(III), is 1.5mg per kilogram of body weight, so for an adult, ingesting about 100mg would lead to death.

But much lower doses than that could lead to trouble, particularly in the form of skin cancer. A WHO report (PDF file) on arsenic in drinking water says, "Increased risks of lung and bladder cancer and of arsenic-associated skin lesions have been reported to be associated with ingestion of drinking-water at concentrations ≤50 μg arsenic per liter". At the recommended 2.7 liters a day for adults, that amounts to ingesting 135 micrograms per day through your drinking water

The Federal limit for inorganic arsenic in drinking water in the US follows the WHO recommendation of 10 ppb, or 10 micrograms per liter. If I'm a good girl and drink my recommended 2.7 liters of water per day, I could ingest 27 micrograms of inorganic arsenic through my water.

If I also eat a rice-based cereal for breakfast, munch on a granola bar containing rice for a snack, have a gluten-free sandwich for lunch, and make a rice-and-beans dinner, each food item would add to my arsenic intake. Not to mention chicken, and certain fruit juices. All this could get me uncomfortably close to the 135 micrograms of daily arsenic that signals trouble.

Right. I think I'll be careful of our rice intake now (we don't drink fruit juices anyway, so that's easy).

There isn't much I can do about drinking water, since arsenic is endemic from natural sources. Water companies treat water until the arsenic levels are below the federal standard.

I could petition the FDA to lower the arsenic limit in this and that rice, juice, chicken and other foods. It would make our food safer.

It could also drive many rice growers in the US out of business.

The reason why much of US-grown rice contains so much arsenic is that rice is planted in many places where cotton used to be grown. One of the most widely used pesticides in the cotton industry was lead arsenate. The pesticide still hangs around in the soil even now, 30 years after it was banned. It gets picked up by the water in which the rice grows for much of its life. And rice plants are very good at collecting arsenic from the water. (You wonder where the lead is getting to, but that's a whole different can of worms).

In other words, short of moving their rice fields, there isn't much a rice farmer could do about the arsenic problem. (There is talk of reducing the amount of water used in growing rice. But rice is a swamp plant: it needs that water).

This is also why choosing organic rice doesn't help: it takes only three years of transitioning before farmland is declared organic. But the lead arsenate pesticide is still in the soil after 30 years.

Why aren't we all hearing the clanging of alarm bells?

We need to step back and look at the bigger picture. Yes, we need to limit the poisons we ingest through our food, right now. But we have a pressing need to secure our future, which is our children's and grandchildren's future.


Mind-boggling amounts of synthetic pesticides are still being sprayed on our agricultural lands. OK, let's not be polite; let's call them what they are: poisons. After all, they're designed to kill creatures. If the driver of the pesticide spraying tractor wears an all-over body suit complete with breathing mask, why should we be eating the pesticide residue?

These synthetic pesticides and their brethren, the synthetic herbicides and fertilisers, end up being washed into our streams, and eventually show up in our drinking water.

And they won't die. You think to have slain them with a ban. But even decades after they are banned, their ghosts still come back to haunt us, and our children.

We need to re-think the way we manage our agricultural lands, the soils that feed us. What goes around comes around, on this little ball of a planet. Babies are now born with pesticides, fire retardants, plastic softeners, and other poisons pre-installed in their blood. What a way to prepare them for life. -Not.

So let's get going:

Get informed.
There is a wealth of information out there, waiting for you. A good place to start is Healthy Child Healthy World.

Get on a new course.
Start with one change that you can handle. Once you're used to that, tackle the next one. It's easier (and sticks better) than throwing your whole kitchen and house upside down to start over.

Get your voice out.
Of course, you vote with your dollars. But on top of that, participation in petitions for cleaner food / water / air is important. After all, it's our food, water and air, and our children's. If you don't speak up, how will anyone know what you think?

I wouldn't want to wake up twenty, thirty years from now and have to deal with some horrendous chemical affecting my grandchildren that I could have done something to stop, today. Would you?


CelloMom loves her bike, but writes mostly about fuel-efficient cars.



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