Friday, 28 September 2012

A Bit of Arsenic in Rice Can’t be that Bad, Can it?



BBC Interviewer: If you are accustomed to eating maybe one or two servings [of rice] a week, it’s not going to make that much difference?

Scientist: No, no that’s absolutely the facts

This morning I listened to this interview with a toxicologist about arsenic in rice. I don’t question scientific studies that report that people seem unaffected by trace amounts of heavy metals in food, in the short term. However, I do question the above BBC interview where a scientist claims it’s, “…absolutely the facts” that one or two servings of rice a week is fine for human consumption, no matter where the rice comes from and no matter how long you are exposed to it. For one thing, this scientist doesn’t address the issue of prolonged exposure to arsenic, found linked to bladder cancer in Taiwan. Most importantly, this scientist doesn’t support his claim with any evidence at all.  

In the journal Nature, scientists recently reported that the arsenic-laden rice in the news likely comes from rice crops cultivated on land used in the past to grow cotton in the United States. In the past, U.S. cotton fields were treated with arsenic-based chemicals to kill pests and to make cotton harvest easier.

The current arsenic scare comes from a study on 200 samples of rice and rice products found in the U.S. Scientists from the FDA say this sample is not big enough to recommend changes in people’s diet. So, these scientists have advised the general public to wait on the results of a study based on 1000 rice samples.

After reading the news and science blogs I asked myself a few questions.

Do we need more evidence to find out exactly where arsenic-contaminated rice is coming from and to clean those lands up?

I think so.

But, do we need more evidence to change our eating habits?

Most definitely not.

The interview I quote at the beginning of this blog scares me. I’m envisioning a reoccurring scenario, when scientists from food organizations say its okay to eat a little bit of heavy metals, just not too much. Take tuna for example, many of these fish have methlymercury levels so high, pregnant woman are warned not to eat them at all. This tuna scare has not been enough to stop many of us from eating tuna. Maybe we have limited the amount of methylmercury-contaminated tuna and maybe will eat arsenic-enriched rice in moderation, but, let’s use our common sense, when was even a little bit of these heavy metals ever good for us?

If cotton-farmers 100 years ago knew the chemicals they put on their crops would be absorbed by the rice their great-granddaughters would be eating, would they still use it? I don’t have that answer. I can say that farmers and consumers today should be well aware of how pesticides, and other chemicals, persist in our ecosystem for generations. Today we are talking about arsenic used a century ago. What will it be tomorrow? For one example, my guess is that our descendants will slap their forehead when they think of all the glyphosate we use today to remove weeds (really any other plant) from our soy, wheat, and cereal crops.

So will a little arsenic in our stir-fry harm us today? Will a little glyphosate in our toast harm us tomorrow? I guess it all depends on what we are thinking when we make our eating choices. Are you simply eating to get by? Or, are you are eating to protect your health and that of generations to come?

3 comments:

  1. I just came across this recent article that suggests the arsenic that we are getting in our rice is due to all the arsenic we are feeding our chickens: http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2012/09/waiter-theres-arsenic-my-rice. One particularly scary reveal is that some organic farms use chicken manure from industrial "farms" as fertilizer, including Lundberg Family Farms, one of my favorites (and shown above in this very blog! Nice picture by the way); their product was shown to have relatively high levels of arsenic. The article also frames the "one or two servings" statistic a little differently...Instead of saying that people that eat one or two servings will suffer no ill-effects, they stress that people shouldn't eat more than that.

    Who would've thought that using about a 750,000 tons of arsenic (mostly as a pesticide) in the USA since the mid-1960's would've turned out to be a bad idea?

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  2. Dave, thanks for the great article. I was surprised to learn that in addition to poor decisions made in the past, today's poultry industry is contributing to high levels of arsenic found in rice. I was also shocked that arsenic contamination applied to organic rice. It seems that buying organic simply isn't enough to keep contaminants out of our soils and bodies, and labels are no replacement for growing your own food or having full knowledge of the growing process. For now, I think I'll be eating a lot more wild rice!

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