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Arsenic has long been recognized as a poison and a contaminant in drinking water, but now concerns are growing about arsenic in foods, especially in fruit juices that are a mainstay for children.
Controversy over arsenic in apple juice made headlines as the school year began when Mehmet Oz, M.D., host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” told viewers that tests he’d commissioned found 10 of three dozen apple-juice samples with total arsenic levels exceeding 10 parts per billion (ppb). There’s no federal arsenic threshold for juice or most foods, though the limit for bottled and public water is 10 ppb. The Food and Drug Administration, trying to reassure consumers about the safety of apple juice, claimed that most arsenic in juices and other foods is of the organic type that is “essentially harmless.”
But an investigation by Consumer Reports shows otherwise. Our study, including tests of apple and grape juice, a scientific analysis of federal health data, a consumer poll, and interviews with doctors and other experts, finds the following:
- Roughly 10% of our juice samples, from five brands, had total arsenic levels that exceeded federal drinking-water standards. Most of that arsenic was inorganic arsenic, a known carcinogen.
- One in four samples had lead levels higher than the FDA’s bottled-water limit of 5 ppb. As with arsenic, no federal limit exists for lead in juice.
- Apple and grape juice constitute a significant source of dietary exposure to arsenic, according to our analysis of federal health data from 2003 through 2008.
- Children drink a lot of juice. Thirty-five percent of children 5 and younger drink juice in quantities exceeding pediatricians’ recommendations, our poll of parents shows.
- Mounting scientific evidence suggests that chronic exposure to arsenic and lead even at levels below water standards can result in serious health problems.
- Inorganic arsenic has been detected at disturbing levels in other foods, too, which suggests that more must be done to reduce overall dietary exposure.
Our findings have prompted Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, to urge the FDA to set arsenic and lead standards for apple and grape juice. Our scientists believe that juice should at least meet the 5 ppb lead limit for bottled water. They recommend an even lower arsenic limit for juice: 3 ppb.
“People sometimes say, ‘If arsenic exposure is so bad, why don’t you see more people sick or dying from it?’ But the many diseases likely to be increased by exposure even at relatively low levels are so common already that its effects are overlooked simply because no one has looked carefully for the connection,” says Joshua Hamilton, Ph.D., a toxicologist specializing in arsenic research and the chief academic and scientific officer at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass.
As our investigation found, when scientists and doctors do look, the connections they’ve found underscore the need to protect public health by reducing Americans’ exposure to this potent toxin.
Many sources of exposure
Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that can contaminate groundwater used for drinking and irrigation in areas where it’s abundant, such as parts of New England, the Midwest, and the Southwest. See the map from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) showing test results of arsenic levels in groundwater throughout the United States.
But the public’s exposure to arsenic extends beyond those areas because since 1910, the United States has used roughly 1.6 million tons of it for agricultural and other industrial uses. About half of that cumulative total has been used since only the mid-1960s. Lead-arsenate insecticides were widely used in cotton fields, orchards, and vineyards until their use was banned in the 1980s. But residues in the soil can still contaminate crops.
For decades, arsenic was also used in a preservative for pressure-treated lumber commonly used for decks and playground equipment. In 2003 that use was banned, (as was most residential use) but the wood can contribute to arsenic in groundwater when it’s recycled as mulch.
Other sources of exposure include coal-fired power plants and smelters that heat arsenic-containing ores to process copper or lead. Today the quantity of arsenic released into the environment in the United States by human activities is three times more than that released from natural sources, says the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
The form of arsenic in the examples above is inorganic arsenic. It’s a carcinogen known to cause bladder, lung, and skin cancer in people and to increase risks of cardiovascular disease, immunodeficiencies, and type 2 diabetes.
The other form that arsenic takes is organic arsenic, created when arsenic binds to molecules containing carbon. Fish can contain an organic form of arsenic called arsenobetaine, generally considered nontoxic to humans. But questions have been raised about the human health effects of other types of organic arsenic in foods, including juice.
Use of organic arsenic in agricultural products has also caused concern. For instance, the EPA in 2006 took steps to stop the use of herbicides containing organic arsenic because of their potential to turn into inorganic arsenic in soil and contaminate drinking water. And in 2011, working with the FDA, drug company Alpharma agreed to suspend the sale of Roxarsone, a poultry-feed additive, because it contained an organic form of arsenic that could convert into inorganic arsenic inside the bird, potentially contaminating the meat. Or it could contaminate soil when chicken droppings are used as fertilizer. Other arsenic feed additives are still being used.
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