Arsenic in Infant Rice Cereal

When it comes to rice and rice-based products, pediatric nutrition authorities have recommended that arsenic intake should be as low as possible.

“The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been monitoring the arsenic content in foods” for decades, yet despite the “well-established science describing the health risks associated with arsenic exposure, no standards have been set limiting the amount of arsenic allowable in foods” in the United States. In 2001, the EPA “adopted a new stricter standard for arsenic in drinking water,” and in 2013, the FDA proposed a legal limit for apple juice. “There are still no standards for arsenic in food products despite the fact that food sources are our main source of exposure.”

Unlike the United States, China has standards. As of 2014, China set a maximum threshold of inorganic arsenic at 150 parts per billion, stricter than the World Health Organization’s limit of 200 ppb. In the United States, a 200 ppb limit wouldn’t change the cancer risk much. If we had China’s safety limits of 150 ppb, though, cancer risk would be reduced up to 23 percent and a maximum threshold of 100 ppb would lower cancer risk up to 47 percent—but that could seriously affect the rice industry. In other words, U.S. rice is so contaminated with arsenic that if a safety standard that really cut down on cancer risk were set, it “would wipe out the U.S. rice market.” However, with no limits, what’s the incentive for the rice industry to change its practices? Setting arsenic limits would not only directly protect consumers but also encourage the industry to stop planting rice paddies on arsenic-contaminated land.

Those cancer estimates are based on arsenic-contaminated water studies. Might the arsenic in rice somehow have a different effect? You don’t know…until you put it to the test. We know rice has a lot of toxic arsenic that urine studies have shown we absorb into our body, but there hadn’t been any studies demonstrating “deleterious health impacts” specific to rice arsenic—until now. Since arsenic causes bladder cancer, the researchers figured they would see what kind of DNA mutations the urine of rice eaters can have on human bladder cells growing in a petri dish. And, indeed, they clearly demonstrated that eating a lot of arsenic-contaminated rice every day can “give rise to significant amounts of genetic damage,” the kind that‘s associated with cancer. Yes, but the study used pretty contaminated rice. However, only about 10 percent of the rice in certain parts of Asia might ever reach those levels of contamination, though a quarter of rice in parts of Europe might and more half in the United States, making for considerable public health implications.

So, “there remains little mystery surrounding the health risks associated with arsenic levels in rice. The remaining mystery is why long-overdue standards for arsenic levels in rice have not been set by the FDA” in the United States, but that may be changing. In 2016, the FDA proposed setting a limit on toxic arsenic—at least in infant rice cereal, which I discuss in my video Arsenic in Infant Rice Cereal.

As you can see at 3:24 in my video, infants and children under four years of age average the highest rice intake, in part because they eat about three times the amount of food in relation to their body size, so there’s an especially “urgent need for regulatory limits” on toxic arsenic in baby food.

Pediatric nutrition authorities have recommended that when it comes to rice and rice-based products, “arsenic intake should be as low as possible,” but how about as early as possible? Approximately 90 percent of pregnant women eat rice, which may end up having “adverse health effects” on the baby.

You can estimate how much rice the mother ate while pregnant by analyzing arsenic levels in the infant’s toenail clippings. “Specifically, an increase of 1/4 cup of rice per day was associated with a 16.9% increase in infants toenail [arsenic] concentration,” which indicates that arsenic in rice can be passed along to the fetus. What might that arsenic do? A quarter cup of rice worth of arsenic has been associated with low birth weight, increased respiratory infections, and, above that, a 5- to 6-point reduction in IQ, among other issues. So, “based on the FDA’s findings, it would be prudent for pregnant women to consume a variety of foods, including varied grains (such as wheat, oats, and barley),” which is code for cut down on rice. Saying eat less of anything, after all, is bad for business.

Once the baby is weaning, “what’s a parent to do?” Asks Consumer Reports, “To reduce arsenic risks, we recommend that babies eat no more than 1 serving of infant rice cereal per day on average. And their diets should include cereals made of wheat, oatmeal, or corn grits, which contain significantly lower levels of arsenic”—that is, rely on other grains, which are much less contaminated than rice. As the American Academy of Pediatrics has emphasized, “there is no demonstrated benefit of rice cereal over those made with other grains such as oat, barley, and multigrain cereals, all of which have lower arsenic levels than rice cereal.” As you can see at 5:28 in my video, reducing consumption of infant rice cereal to just two servings per week could have an even more dramatic effect on reducing risk.

 The proposed limit on toxic arsenic in infant rice cereals would end up removing about half of the products off the shelves. The FDA analyzed more than 500 infant and toddler foods, and the highest levels of toxic arsenic were found in organic brown rice cereals and “Toddler Puffs.” Based on the wording in the report, these puffs appear to be from the Happy Baby brand. Not-so-happy baby if they suffer brain damage or grow up to get cancer. A single serving could expose infants to twice the tolerable arsenic intake set by the EPA for water. I contacted the Happy Baby company and was told they “are not able to provide any comments” on the FDA’s results.

“Eliminating all rice and rice products from the diets of infants and small children up to 6 years old could reduce the lifetime cancer risk from inorganic arsenic in rice and rice products by 6% and 23% respectively.” That is, there would be a 6 percent lower chance of developing lung or bladder cancer later in life if infants stopped, and a 23 percent lower chance if young kids stopped. However, switching to other grains is a move described as “drastic and dramatic,” creating “a huge crisis”—for the rice industry, presumably—and therefore “not feasible at all.”

I was hoping Happy Baby, upon learning of the concerning FDA arsenic toddler puffs data (regardless of whether the data were about its brand or not) would have kicked its own testing and potential remediation into high gear like Lundberg did (see Which Brands and Sources of Rice Have the Least Arsenic?). But, unfortunately, in my email correspondence with the company, I got no sense that it did.

For more videos on this topic, see:

And here are five more:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Where Does the Arsenic in Rice, Mushrooms, and Wine Come From?

What happens when our crops are grown in soil contaminated with arsenic-based pesticides and arsenic drug-laced chicken manure?

When arsenic-containing drugs are fed to chickens, not only does the arsenic grow out into their feathers, which are then fed back to them as a slaughterhouse byproduct, but the arsenic can also get into their tissues and then into our tissues when we eat eggs or meat, a cycle depicted at the start of my video Where Does the Arsenic in Rice, Mushrooms, and Wine Come From?. This explains why national studies have found that those who eat more poultry have tended to have more arsenic flowing through their bodies. Why would the industry do that? In modern poultry farms, often called CAFOs for concentrated animal feeding operations, there can be 200,000 birds under one roof and the floors of these buildings become covered with feces. While this so-called factory farming decreases costs, it also increases the risk of disease. That’s where arsenic-containing drugs and other antibiotic feed additives can come in: to try to cut down the spread of disease in such an unnatural environment. If you’re feeling a little smug because you don’t eat chicken, what do you think happens to the poop?

As depicted at 1:17 in my video, from chicken manure, the arsenic from the drugs in the animal feed can get into our crops, into the air, and into the groundwater, and find its way into our bodies whether we eat meat or not. Yes, but how much arsenic are we really talking about? Well, we raise billions of chickens a year, and, if, historically, the vast majority were fed arsenic, then, if you do the math, we’re talking about dumping a half million pounds of arsenic into the environment every year—much of it onto our crops or shoveled directly into the mouths of other farm animals.

Most of the arsenic in chicken waste is water soluble, so, there are certainly concerns about it seeping into the groundwater. But, if it’s used as a fertilizer, what about our food? Studies on the levels of arsenic in the U.S. food supply dating back to the 1970s identified two foods, fish aside, with the highest levels—chicken and rice—both of which can accumulate arsenic in the same way. Deliver an arsenic-containing drug like roxarsone to chickens, and it ends up in their manure, which ends up in the soil, which ends up in our pilaf. “Rice is [now] the primary source of As [arsenic] exposure in a non seafood diet.”

I was surprised to learn that mushrooms are in the top-five food sources of arsenic, but then it made sense after I found out that poultry litter is commonly used as a starting material to grow mushrooms in the United States. As you can see at 2:58 in my video, over the years, the arsenic content in mushrooms has rivaled arsenic concentration in rice, though people tend to eat more rice than mushrooms on a daily basis. Arsenic levels in mushrooms seemed to be dipping starting about a decade ago, which was confirmed in a 2016 paper that looked at a dozen different types of mushrooms: plain white button mushrooms, cremini, portobello, shiitake, trumpet, oyster, nameko, maitake, alba clamshell, brown clamshell, and chanterelle. Now, mushrooms are only averaging about half the arsenic content as rice, as you can see at 3:37 in my video.

Just like some mushrooms have less arsenic than others, some rice has less. Rice grown in California has 40 percent less arsenic than rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas. Why? Well, arsenic-based pesticides had been used for more than a century on millions of acres of cotton fields, a practice noted to be “dangerous” back in 1927. Arsenic pesticides are now effectively banned, so it’s not simply a matter of buying organic versus conventional rice because millions of pounds of arsenic had been laid down in the soil well before the rice was even planted.

The rice industry is well aware of this. There’s an arsenic-toxicity disorder in rice called “straighthead,” where rice planted in soil too heavily contaminated with arsenic doesn’t grow right. So, instead of choosing cleaner cropland, they just developed arsenic-resistant strains of rice. Now, lots of arsenic can build up in rice without the plant getting hurt. Can the same be said, however, for the rice consumer?

It’s the same story with wine. Arsenic pesticides were used, decade after decade, and even though they’ve since been banned, arsenic can still be sucked up from the soil, leading to “the pervasive presence of arsenic in [American] wine [that] can pose a potential health risk.” Curiously, the researchers sum up their article by saying that “chronic arsenic exposure is known to lower IQ in children,” but if kids are drinking that much wine, arsenic toxicity is probably the least of their worries.

Hold on. Chickens are being fed arsenic-based drugs? See Where Does the Arsenic in Chicken Come From? to find out more.

 I expect the arsenic-in-rice issue brought up a lot of questions, and giving you answers is exactly why I’m here! Check out:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Adult Exposure to Lead

“Children in approximately 4 million households in the United States are being exposed to high levels of lead.” As I discuss in my video The Effects of Low-Level Lead Exposure in Adults, “Despite the dramatic decline in children’s blood-lead concentrations over the decades, lead toxicity remains a major public health problem”—and not just for children. Yes, lead is “a devastating neurotoxin,” with learning disabilities and attention deficits in children beginning around blood lead levels of 10 mg/dL, which is when you start seeing high blood pressure and nerve damage in adults, as you can see at 0:41 in my video. But, the blood levels in American adults these days are down around 1 mg/dL, not 10 mg/dL, unless you work or play in an indoor firing range, where the lead levels in the air are so high that more than half of recreational target shooters have levels over 10 mg/dL or even 25 mg/dL.

In fact, even open-air outdoor ranges can be a problem. Spending just two days a month at such a range may quadruple blood lead levels and push them up into the danger zone. What if you don’t use firearms yourself but live in a house with someone who does? The lead levels can be so high that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises those who go to shooting ranges to take “measures to prevent take-home exposure including showering and changing into clean clothes after shooting…, storing clean clothes in a separate bin from contaminated clothing, laundering of non disposable outer protective clothing…and leaving at the range shoes worn inside the firing range,” among other actions. Even if none of that applies and your blood levels are under 10 mg/dL, there is still some evidence of increased risk of hand tremors, high blood pressure, kidney damage, and other issues, as you can see at 1:44 in my video. But what if you’re down around a blood lead level of 1 mg/dL, like most people?

“Blood lead levels in the range currently considered acceptable are associated with increased prevalence of gout,” a painful arthritis. In fact, researchers found that blood levels as low as approximately 1.2 mg/dL, which is close to the current American average, can be associated with increased prevalence of gout. So, this means that “very low levels of lead may still be associated with health risks,” suggesting “there is no such thing as a ‘safe’ level of exposure to lead.”

Where is the lead even coming from? Lead only circulates in the body for about a month, so if you have lead in your bloodstream, it’s from some ongoing exposure. Most adults don’t eat peeling paint chips, though, and autos aren’t fueled by leaded gas anymore. There are specific foods, supplements, and cosmetics that are contaminated with lead (and I have videos on all those topics), but for most adults, the source of ongoing lead exposure is from our own skeleton. I just mentioned that lead only circulates in the body for about a month. Well, where does it go after that? It can get deposited in our bones. “More than 90% of the total body lead content resides in the bone, where the half-life is decades long,” not just a month. So, half or more of the lead in our blood represents lead from past exposures just now leaching out of our bones back into our bloodstream, and this “gradual release of lead from the bone serves as a persistent source of toxicity long after cessation of external exposure,” that is, long after leaded gasoline was removed from the pumps for those of us that who were around back before the 1980s.

So, the answer to where the lead comes from is like Pogo’s We’ve met the enemy and he is us or that classic horror movie scene where the call is coming from inside the house.

The amount of lead in our bones can actually be measured, and research shows higher levels are associated with some of our leading causes of death and disability, from tooth decay and miscarriages to cognitive decline and cataracts. “Much of the lead found in adults today was deposited decades ago. Thus, regulations enacted in the 1970s were too late” for many of us, but at least things are going in the right direction now. The “dramatic societal decreases” in blood lead in the United States since the 1970s have been associated with a four- to five-point increase in the average IQs of American adults. Given that, a “particularly provocative question is whether the whole country suffered brain damage prior to the 1980 decreases in blood lead. Was ‘the best generation’ really the brain damaged generation?”

I’m such a sucker for science documentaries, and my favorite episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey was The Clean Room, which dealt with this very issue. Trivia: Carl Sagan was my next-door neighbor when I was at Cornell!

If you want to find out How the Leaded Gas Industry Got Away with It, check out that video. How the Lead Paint Industry Got Away with It is similarly scandalous. Lead in Drinking Water offers the modern-day tale of what happened in Flint, Michigan, and “Normal” Blood Lead Levels Can Be Toxic explores the impacts on childhood development.

I close out this extended video series on lead with information on what we can do about it:

Interested in learning more about lead being absorbed and released in our bones, and how calcium supplements may affect that process? See The Rise in Blood Lead Levels at Pregnancy and Menopause and Should Pregnant Women Take Calcium Supplements to Lower Lead Levels?.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations: