A daily half-cup of cooked rice may carry a hundred times the acceptable cancer risk of arsenic. What about seaweed from the coast of Maine?
“At one point during the reign of King Cotton, farmers in the south central United States controlled boll weevils with arsenic-based pesticides, and residual arsenic still contaminates the soil.” Different plants have different reactions to arsenic exposure. Tomatoes, for example, don’t seem to accumulate much arsenic, but rice plants are really good at sucking it out of the ground—so much so that rice can be used for “arsenic phytoremediation,” meaning you can plant rice on contaminated land as a way to clear arsenic from the soil. Of course, you’re then supposed to throw the rice—and the arsenic—away. But in the South, where 80 percent of U.S. rice is grown, we instead feed it to people.
As you can see at 0:52 in my video Cancer Risk from Arsenic in Rice and Seaweed, national surveys have shown that most arsenic exposure has been measured coming from the meat in our diet, rather than from grains, with most from fish and other seafood. Well, given that seafood is contributing 90 percent of our arsenic exposure from food, why are we even talking about the 4 percent from rice?
The arsenic compounds in seafood are mainly organic—used here as a chemistry term having nothing to do with pesticides. Because of the way our body can deal with organic arsenic compounds, “they have historically been viewed as harmless.” Recently, there have been some questions about that assumption, but there’s no question about the toxicity of inorganic arsenic, which you get more of from rice.
As you can see at 1:43 in my video, rice contains more of the toxic inorganic arsenic than does seafood, with one exception: Hijiki, an edible seaweed, is a hundred times more contaminated than rice, leading some researchers to refer to it as the “so-called edible hijiki seaweed.” Governments have started to agree. In 2001, the Canadian government advised the public not to eat hijiki, followed by the United Kingdom, the European Commission, Australia, and New Zealand. The Hong Kong Centre for Food Safety advised the public not to eat hijiki and banned imports and sales of it. Japan, where there is actually a hijiki industry, just advised moderation.
What about seaweed from the coast of Maine—domestic, commercially harvested seaweed from New England? Thankfully, only one type, a type of kelp, had significant levels of arsenic. But, it would take more than a teaspoon to exceed the provisional daily limit for arsenic, and, at that point, you’d be exceeding the upper daily limit for iodine by about 3,000 percent, which is ten times more than reported in a life-threatening case report attributed to a kelp supplement.
I recommend avoiding hijiki due to its excess arsenic content and avoiding kelp due to its excess iodine content, but all other seaweeds should be fine, as long as you don’t eat them with too much rice.
In the report mentioned earlier where we learned that rice has more of the toxic inorganic arsenic than fish, we can see that there are 88.7 micrograms of inorganic arsenic per kilogram of raw white rice. What does that mean? That’s only 88.7 parts per billion, which is like 88.7 drops of arsenic in an Olympic-size swimming pool of rice. How much cancer risk are we talking about? To put it into context, the “usual level of acceptable risk for carcinogens” is one extra cancer case per million. That’s how we typically regulate cancer-causing substances. If a chemical company wants to release a new chemical, we want them to show that it doesn’t cause more than one in a million excess cancer cases.
The problem with arsenic in rice is that the excess cancer risk associated with eating just about a half cup of cooked rice a day could be closer to one in ten thousand, not one in a million, as you can see at 4:07 in my video. That’s a hundred times the acceptable cancer risk. The FDA has calculated that one serving a day of the most common rice, long grain white, would cause not 1 in a million extra cancer cases, but 136 in a million.
And that’s just the cancer effects of arsenic. What about all the non-cancer effects? The FDA acknowledges that, in addition to cancer, the toxic arsenic found in rice “has been associated with many non-cancer effects, including ischemic heart disease, diabetes, skin lesions, renal [kidney] disease, hypertension, and stroke.” Why, then, did the FDA only calculate the cancer risks of arsenic? “Assessing all the risks associated with inorganic arsenic would take considerable time and resources and would delay taking any needed action to protect public health” from the risks of rice.
“Although physicians can help patients reduce their dietary arsenic exposure, regulatory agencies, food producers, and legislative bodies have the most important roles” in terms of public health-scale changes. “Arsenic content in U.S.-grown rice has been relatively constant throughout the last 30 years,” which is a bad thing.
“Where grain arsenic concentration is elevated due to ongoing contamination, the ideal scenario is to stop the contamination at the source.” Some toxic arsenic in foods is from natural contamination of the land, but soil contamination has also come from the dumping of arsenic-containing pesticides, as well as the use of arsenic-based drugs in poultry production and then the spreading of arsenic-laced chicken manure on the land. Regardless of why south central U.S. rice paddies are so contaminated, we shouldn’t be growing rice in arsenic-contaminated soil.
What does the rice industry have to say for itself? Well, it started a website called ArsenicFacts. Its main argument appears to be that arsenic is everywhere, we’re all exposed to it every day, and it’s in most foods. But shouldn’t we try to cut down on the most concentrated sources? Isn’t that like saying look, diesel exhaust is everywhere, so why not suck on a tailpipe? The industry website quotes a nutrition professor saying, “All foods contain arsenic. So, if you eliminate arsenic from your diet, you will decrease your risk…and you’ll die of starvation.” That’s like Philip Morris saying that the only way to completely avoid secondhand smoke is to never breathe—but then you’ll asphyxiate, so you might as well just start smoking yourself. If you can’t avoid it, you might as well consume the most toxic source you can find?!
That’s the same tack the poultry industry took. Arsenic and chicken? “No need to worry” because there’s a little arsenic everywhere. That’s why it’s okay the industry fed chickens arsenic-based drugs for 70 years. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
How can the rice industry get away with selling a product containing a hundred times the acceptable cancer risk? I cover that and so much more in my other videos on arsenic and rice, which also include concrete recommendations on how to mediate your risk.
Pesticides were not the only source of arsenic. Poultry poop, too, if you can believe it! I cover that story in Where Does the Arsenic in Chicken Come From? and Where Does the Arsenic in Rice, Mushrooms, and Wine Come From?.
Chronic low-dose arsenic exposure is associated with more than just cancer. See The Effects of Too Much Arsenic in the Diet.
Michael Greger, M.D.
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