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If America Only Knew How Much Arsenic Ends Up on the Average Dinner Plate

Our government is perversely protecting the industries that release the killer chemical into society.

Photo Credit: Zurijeta/ Shutterstock


This article was published in collaboration with

The American right wing loves to hate Big Government, but does size matter? Perhaps the problem is not Big Government, but Dumb Government, Inefficient Government or even Corrupt, Sold-Out, or Inept Government. The recent bombshell Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, dropped – that rice contains dangerous levels of arsenic – illustrates how good, effective government can save lives by keeping deadly toxins out of the food supply whereas our federal bureaucracy (aided, abetted and cajoled by industry) has instead let us down.

Arsenic “is considered the number one environmental chemical of concern for human health effects both in the U.S. and worldwide,” according to information published by Darmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program. It can be divided into two categories: organic and inorganic. While organic arsenic is itself a probable human carcinogen, inorganic arsenic is a definite human carcinogen that is linked to liver, lung, kidney, bladder, and skin cancer as well as “increased risk of vascular and heart disease, type 2 diabetes, reproductive and developmental disorders, low birth weights in babies, neurological and cognitive problems, immunodeficiencies, metabolic disorders, and a growing list of other serious outcomes.”

In short: you don’t want this in your food.

“When you're talking about a carcinogen [like arsenic], there is no safe level,” Consumers Union’s senior scientist Michael Hansen explains. Instead of eliminating all risk, one looks at carcinogens in terms of levels of risk. For example, Consumers Union provides a table explaining how much rice one can eat to achieve a 1 in 1,000 lifetime risk of cancer. The federal government does not limit the amount of arsenic allowed in food, so Consumers Union based its standard on the EPA’s initial recommendation for arsenic limits in drinking water (five parts per billion).

In fact, the drinking water standard – which is now set at 10 parts per billion (ppb) – is a fine place to begin the story of how government, industry and arsenic fit together. Arsenic is a naturally occurring element, but the U.S. has increased the amount of arsenic in our environment and our farmland over the past century by using 1.6 million tons of it in agricultural and industrial uses. About half of that amount has been used since the mid-1960s.

Once in the environment, arsenic – a chemical element and a heavy metal – does not break down and go away as do some toxins. Once so much arsenic was sprayed on farms, it was in the environment for good – and it could find its way into our food and water. U.S. limits on arsenic in drinking water were set at 50 ppb in 1942, before arsenic was classified as a carcinogen. But a 1999 report by the National Academy of Sciences showed that this level failed to protect Americans from an unacceptably high risk of cancer.

The EPA then proposed lowering the limit for arsenic from 50 ppb to just 5 ppb in 2000. Industry complained, and the Clinton-era EPA settled upon lowering the limit to just 10 ppb instead. Once George W. Bush took office, he initially attempted to block the change, thus keeping the World War II-era limit of 50 ppb. By November 2001, the Bush administration gave in to allowing the 10 ppb limit to go forward. Even still, Sen. Barbara Boxer noted that this 10 ppb limit would allow three times as much cancer risk as the EPA’s usual goal.

Arsenic in food deserves some special concern, and yet there are no regulations limiting it. In addition to arsenic used in industry that finds its way onto farms, there is arsenic used in agriculture that the farmers themselves bring to their farms, a practice almost dating back to the Civil War.

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