Target 11 investigates: How dangerous is arsenic in rice and juice?



PITTSBURGH - Arsenic is best known as a poison that, years ago, was slipped into the food of royalty. Now, small amounts are making it our diet every day. It's not enough to kill us, but it is enough to do harm.

In this Target 11 investigation, Robin Taylor takes a look at arsenic, a hidden danger.

Arsenic does its damage slowly and quietly. Over time, one tiny dose after another can lead to serious health problems. Since it's found in so many different foods, I asked the experts: Just how concerned should people be?

Aly Thompson cares about what she feeds her family and tries to give them healthy foods. Her three kids drink apple juice every day, and for them, rice is a staple. But recent studies have found arsenic in both those foods, along with grape juice, organic baby cereal and breakfast cereals.

"When you hear stuff like this, does it make you nervous?" I asked.

"Oh yes, of course. Yes, very much, especially with the little ones," said Thompson, in Baldwin, Pa.

Arsenic can trigger deadly health concerns, such as cancer, diabetes or heart disease.

"The bone marrow can be suppressed. We see low white blood cells and red cells. We see chronic skin problems," said Dr. Marc Itskowitz, an internist with Allegheny General Hospital.

Itskowitz says young children are particularly vulnerable, especially if they're consuming these foods every day. The tiny amounts of arsenic in them could set the stage for problems later in life.

"If all you're drinking is apple juice or grape juice and all you're eating is rice, there could be a problem," said Itskowitz.

Consumer Reports is concerned about arsenic in juice from overseas and rice grown in the southern United States, because arsenic is still used as a pesticide in China and for years was used in cotton fields in the U.S.

Arsenic is absorbed through the water and soil the rice is grown in. In the study, rice from California and India had lower levels of arsenic.

Rice producers argue there's no need to panic; that these concerns are overblown.

"You read different reports online saying it's OK to eat it, no, it's not OK to eat it, and you don't know who to believe," said Thompson.

"I think it is something people need to be concerned about, simply because rice is a staple," said Leslie Bonci, a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center dietitian.

Bonci still thinks rice and juice are healthy but recommends cutting back and changing the way rice is cooked.

"If you really want to be safe about this, it's 6 to 1. So we think about that, it is 6 cups of water to 1 cup of rice," said Bonci.

She says rinse the rice first and then boil it like pasta. Bonci says draining the excess water can reduce arsenic levels by 30 percent.

"I think to be on the safe side, not every day, changing it up, different types of grains. So that doesn't mean no rice, but it means not rice seven days a week," said Bonci.

Right now, there's no federal limit for arsenic in food, but there is a limit for arsenic in water. In some cases, a single serving of rice hits the limit.

The Food and Drug Administration is conducting large -scale studies to find out how widespread this problem really is and is considering limits for arsenic in juice and other foods.