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Sifting through the grains – what rice laced with arsenic means

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 26 2012 2:34 p.m. MDT

Certain ethnic groups, including Mexicans, other Hispanics, and Asians, are more affected by arsenic levels in rice, according to Consumer Reports.

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People want to know if certain food creates risks for health problems such as cancer. Rice, which can also be found in cereal, children's snacks, baby food, rice pasta and other foods, has been linked to high levels of arsenic.

The health risks linked to arsenic are "an increased risk of cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory conditions, and diabetes and gestational diabetes," according to a report from Environmental Health Perspectives.

“We already know that high concentrations of arsenic in drinking water result in the highest known toxic substance disease risks from any environmental exposure,” said Allan Smith, a doctor of medicine and professor of epidemiology at the University of California, Berkeley, to Consumer Reports. “So we should not be arguing to wait for years until we have results of epidemiologic studies at lower arsenic intake, such as from rice consumption, to take action.”

Americans consume 21 pounds of rice per capita each year, according to a 2009 report from the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. That is not to mention the other arsenic-laced food Americans consume, such as apple juice, which was in the news last year because of this issue.

"In 2001, the National Academy of Sciences estimated that people drinking arsenic-contaminated water at 10 parts per billion would have a 1-in-300 risk of developing cancer over their lifetimes," wrote Sonya Lunder and Dawn Undurraga in the Huffington Post. "Recent research suggests that people ingest about that much arsenic in a just a half-cup serving of rice, not an unusual amount for millions of Americans."

Unfortunately, rice is one of the few crops that soaks up arsenic, which can be found in pesticides and manure used for fertilizer, said the article from Consumer Reports. Since 1910, agriculture and industries used about 1.6 million tons of arsenic in just the United States alone.

Even if pesticides don't contain arsenic, rice will soak up the chemical from soil and water from previous arsenic-laced pesticides.

"White rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas, which account for 76 percent of domestic rice, generally had higher levels of total arsenic and inorganic arsenic in our tests than rice samples from elsewhere," wrote Consumer Reports.

Those most affected were Mexicans and other Hispanics and Asians, according to Consumer Reports.

Scientists at the United States Environmental Protection Agency studied how children were affected by consuming rice.

"The scientists looked at how rice consumption over the course of the day affected urinary arsenic concentration among the 2,323 children between the ages of six and seventeen," said the EPA report. "They found that children who consumed rice during that period had more than 14 percent more arsenic present in their urine than children that did not eat any rice."

Despite what scientists say, Anne Banville, vice president of the USA Rice Federation, which advocates for the $34 billion rice industry, told Consumer Reports levels of arsenic in rice shouldn't be a concern, that the health benefits outweigh arsenic exposure.

"Small amounts of arsenic are ingested daily without apparent toxicity," wrote Rian Davis, a doctor of pharmacy, in Utah Poison Control Center's newsletter.

It's rare to have arsenic poisoning, but when it happens it's a serious concern, according to the article.

For those still concerned, a change in diet could include replacing rice with couscous, barley, quinoa or grits, and being aware of products that contain rice syrup as a sweetener.

For those who can't live without rice, Lunder and Undurraga for the Huffington Post recommend rinsing rice thoroughly and boiling brown rice in a lot of water, similar to boiling pasta.

Email: ehong@desnews.com, Twitter: @erinhong

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