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Arsenic in Your Apple Juice? How a Dangerous Poison Found Its Way Into Fruit Juice

So how much reason is there to be concerned about the trace of poison lurking in your kids' juice box?

Photo Credit: Thomas Tomayo/Flickr



The following article first appeared in  Mother Jones. For more great content from Mother Jones, sign up for free email updates  here. 

"I'd hate to take a bite out of you," Burt Lancaster hisses at Tony Curtis in the classic '50s film  Sweet Smell of Success"You're a cookie full of arsenic." The line resonates to this day, because it's jarring to picture something as comforting and innocuous as a cookie being laced with a notorious poison.


And that's precisely what  Consumer Reports forces us to do with its  just-released story on apple and grape juice—you know, the stuff millions of people feed to their kids every day, sometimes several times a day, in those little boxes. And as with the confection in Lancaster's insult, the poison in question is arsenic.

The FDA currently does not regulate arsenic levels in fruit juices,  CR reports. But for bottled and tap water, the agency enforces a standard of no more than 10 parts per billion of arsenic.

The magazine tested 88 samples of apple and grape juice, acquired from retail outlets in three different states. Samples were drawn from juice in both concentrate and ready-to-drink forms, including juice boxes. All of the samples contained discernible arsenic samples; nine of them, or 10 percent of the total, were found to have arsenic levels that exceeded the drinking-water limit of 10 parts per billion. The samples were also tested for lead—and 25 percent showed levels higher than the FDA's lead standard for bottled water, which is 5 ppb. 

The Consumer Reports findings follow on the heels of the recent set of tests conducted by the  personal-health TV program  The Dr. Oz Showwhich found similar results and aired them on national television. In a September 9  letter to the show's producer, an FDA official dismissed the findings, charging the tests did not distinguish between arsenic in its inorganic form, which is highly toxic, and its organic form, which is relatively benign. The letter rebuked the show for publicizing the results, calling it "irresponsible and misleading."

But the  Consumer Reports data won't be so easily dismissed. According to the article, "most" of the arsenic it found in juices was of the toxic inorganic variety. And while in an  online Q&A about apple juice and arsenic, the FDA calls organic arsenic "essentially harmless," it adds a few paragraphs later that "some scientific studies have shown that two forms of organic arsenic found in apple juice could also be harmful, and because of this, the FDA counts these two forms of organic arsenic in with the overall content for inorganic arsenic."

In other words, the agency contradicts its own "essentially harmless" claim about about organic arsenic. Indeed, its entire stance on arsenic in juice is laced with contradiction. Its website contains a page intended for consumers called  "Apple juice is safe to drink," which states: "There is no evidence of any public health risk from drinking these juices. And FDA has been testing them for years."

But in a  November 21 letter to the watchdog group Food and Water Watch, the agency revealed that its own testing had turned up alarming levels of arsenic in juice. The letter states that the FDA tested 160 apple juice samples between 2005 and 2011 and found that "almost 88 percent had fewer than 10 ppb total arsenic, and 95 percent had total arsenic levels below 23 ppb total arsenic." Turning that around, though, shows that more than 12 percent of samples had arsenic levels above 10 parts per billion—the agency's own drinking-water standard—and 5 percent had levels above 23 ppb. These results are similar to those of  Consumer Reports.

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