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What is arsenic and why is it bad for you?

In recent years, there have been reports about high arsenic levels in products such as apple juice and rice. While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced its concerns and has investigated, how worried should a consumer be? Here’s what you should know about arsenic.

What is arsenic?

Arsenic is an element that occurs naturally and can be found in food, water, air and soil. It can leach into groundwater through soil and rocks and become a widespread problem in drinking water that comes from ground sources, like wells, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

It can enter plants — and thereby the food supply — when it’s in the water, air and soil. Arsenic is used in pesticides, wood preservatives and tobacco, and is released by volcanoes and mining.

In addition, there are organic and inorganic types of arsenic, explains the American Cancer Society.

Organic compounds are arsenic combined with carbon and other elements. These typically are less toxic than inorganic compounds. They are found in some foods, such as fish and shellfish. Inorganic compounds, however, are made of arsenic combined with elements other than carbon. They tend to be more toxic and have been linked to cancer. They are found in building products such as pressure-treated wood and in contaminated water.

How much arsenic is in water?

Groundwater is the most common source of arsenic poisoning. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limits the amount of arsenic in U.S. public drinking water to 10 parts per billion (ppb).

However, private wells are another matter. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), about 7% of wells in the U.S. are thought to have arsenic levels above the current EPA standard. If your home doesn’t use public water, you can have your drinking water tested for arsenic and other possible contaminants. Find an accredited testing laboratory to test your water and to find out if you need a treatment system.

What’s being done about arsenic in food

meal with apple juice and rice Apple juice and rice can have high concentrations of arsenic. (Photo: Valeriy Surujiu/Shutterstock)

Arsenic can be found in grains, fruits and vegetables, apple juice and some seafood. Rice tends to absorb arsenic more easily than many other crops, according to the FDA. The agency says that research shows cooking rice like pasta (in excess water) can reduce 40% to 60% of the inorganic arsenic content, depending on the type of rice. However, this cooking method also lowers the nutritional value of the rice.

In April 2016, the FDA proposed a limit of 100 ppb for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal. Similarly, in July 2013, the agency proposed a limit of 100 ppb for inorganic arsenic in apple juice. The acceptable limits are the same as what it is allowed in drinking water — 10 parts per billion.

Although some seafood can contain high levels of arsenic, it’s typically the less toxic organic kind.

Fruits and vegetables can absorb arsenic from the water and soil, but it’s typically not enough to be of concern, according to the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program.

Fruit-bearing crops like tomatoes, strawberries, peas and beans, absorb little arsenic in the parts that are eaten.

Leafy vegetables such as lettuce and greens store arsenic in the leaves, but not enough to cause concern.

Root vegetables like carrots, potatoes and radishes contain arsenic in their skin. Peeling them will get rid of most of the arsenic, but avoid composting the peel so you don’t return the arsenic to the soil.

Apple seeds contain cyanide, not arsenic, and the hard coating protects you from the small amount in each seed.

Arsenic poisoning

man with headache holding his head Headaches are one of the early arsenic poisoning symptoms. (Photo:

Arsenic poisoning, or arsenicosis, is the effect of long-term exposure to arsenic. When exposed to high levels of arsenic for many years, health problems can include skin problems and skin cancer, blood diseases and cancers of the bladder, kidney and lung, according to the World Health Organization. Arsenic poisoning may also be linked to a host of other health issues including an increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and reproductive disorders.

Although in that case, arsenic poisoning is chronic, arsenic poisoning symptoms can also be immediate. If you swallow arsenic, for example, symptoms can appear within 30 minutes, says Medical News Today, and can include:

  • drowsiness
  • headaches
  • confusion
  • severe diarrhea

If you inhale arsenic or swallow a smaller amount, symptoms may develop less quickly. Less severe arsenic poisoning symptoms can include:

  • metallic taste in the mouth and sore throat
  • excess saliva and problems swallowing
  • blood in the urine
  • muscle weakness and cramps
  • vomiting and diarrhea

Mary Jo DiLonardo writes about everything from health to parenting — and anything that helps explain why her dog does what he does.

What is arsenic and why is it bad for you?

Found in everything from rice to apple juice, arsenic can be a serious health concern, but how worried should you be? Here’s what you need to know.


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