Most of us never think about arsenic - and if we do, it's in the context of the adorable but murderous old aunts in the 1944 classic film 'Arsenic and Old Lace'. This week, a Channel 4 Dispatches programme has thrust it into the spotlight, because it turns out we're all at risk of eating it every day. A new study has shown that more than half of the 81 popular rice products tested by the Institute for Global Food Security exceeded the proposed new tougher guidelines from the European Union (EU) for levels of arsenic, at least for children.
This isn't another Euromyth, like the one on bent bananas (in case you remember this example of bureaucratic barminess, the EU didn't ever ban bananas that weren't straight enough, but decided they couldn't be classed as 'first class' unless they were "free from malformation or abnormal curvature" - they just didn't ever explain what counted as too curved.) There really is arsenic in lots of food. In fact, the proposed new limits from the EU (200 parts per billion in food for adults, and 100 parts per billion in food for children and babies) are supported by the UK Food Standards Agency.
Arsenic occurs naturally in rocks, and there's some lying around in the earth from the days when arsenic-containing pesticides were used. It dissolves easily in water, and is absorbed from water and from the soil by plants. It's found in fruit, vegetables and grains. On the whole, levels in grains tend to be lower than in plant leaves, but we don't eat as much plant leaf as we do rice. And rice is particularly efficient at picking up arsenic compared to other grains. What's more, because the arsenic gets in from soil and water, rather than from insecticides used today, organic products are just as high in arsenic as non-organic ones.
As a nation, we eat four times more rice than we did 40 years ago, and rice cakes and baby rice are very widely used as early foods for babies. So these new guidelines probably have more to do with a realisation that even tiny amounts of arsenic can add up in the long term, rather than a sudden increase in the levels of arsenic in rice. It's always been there, but we've only just noticed.
While every doctor knows the risks of serious alcohol poisoning (diarrhoea and vomiting, abdominal cramps, heart problems, dehydration, collapse and sometimes death), far less is known about the long-term effects of exposure to lower levels of arsenic. It has been linked with a possible increased risk of cancer, including bladder, skin, kidney and lung. It may also be a risk factor for heart attack and stroke. In pregnancy, there may be a link with miscarriage and low birth-weight babies, and in kids it may have an effect on brain development.
What we don't know is the level at which risks start to rise. We're never going to remove all the arsenic from the soil or from food - just like we're never going to remove all the radiation in the world we live in. We certainly don't have to ban rice from our tables immediately for fear of collapsing, frothing at the mouth. In fact, there's absolutely no need to do anything if your rice intake is limited to a few meals a week. I'm not even suggesting parents need to cut rice out of their kids' diet completely. What we do need to be a bit wary of is the fussy eater toddler, where well-meaning parents hand them a rice cake every time they're peckish.
My family get so bored about me banging on about moderation in all things that they have a 'moderation box' rather than a 'swear box' in our house. But until the new limits are sorted, this is definitely another food to add to the list of foods to have in moderation.
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