Arsenic and your food


arsenic riceA decade ago, we wondered if arsenic was in pressurized wood-containing playground equipment . Then we worried about the toxin turning up in apple juice . Now recent reports say arsenic is in the US rice supply .

Uh oh.

As an Asian-American I often cook rice for my family, so I emailed my toxicologist sister when the reports of arsenic in rice first surfaced.

“It’s okay,” my sister emailed back, “Just wash/rinse the rice several times. It’s not like we’re drinking water in Bangladesh.”

“That’s it?” I thought to myself and decided to call her. After all, I figured she is one of a small number of board certified medical toxicologists and an author of a paper on arsenic.

“What is arsenic anyway?” I asked when I got her on the line.

“It’s a naturally occurring element,” she said. To be more precise, it’s number 33 on the periodic table. Like other elements such as iron, lead or calcium, arsenic is found in the earth’s crust.

Here’s what  I learned about arsenic:


Why did my sister reference Bangladesh in her email? In the 1970’s drinking water
was in short supply in Bangladesh. Contamination of water by sewage and
monsoons lead to diarreheal illness and high infant mortality rates.
Hundreds of thousands of wells were drilled in order by well meaning aid
organizations. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to the drillers, Bangladesh
sits over a pocket of arsenic rich soil. As a result, some estimate one
in five of the drilled wells is contaminated with arsenic.


How does arsenic affect humans?

Organic arsenic is not toxic and is found in seafood. The inorganic form of arsenic, however, interferes with AdenosineTri- Phosphate (ATP), which is a building block for cellular energy. When a large amount is ingested at one time, the body goes haywire, causing many vital organs in the body to shut down.

Chronic effects of low amounts of poisoning are more subtle. Exposures to low levels over time are linked to some cancers such as bladder and skin cancer.

How does arsenic enter the body?

By eating or drinking of tainted substances. Rarely, arsenic is inhaled. Absorption of arsenic will not occur via touch.

Can I tell if something is tainted?

No. Arsenic is colorless and tasteless when dissolved in water. In fact, arsenic’s nick name is “Inheritance Powder” because it was used to speed up royal inheritances in medieval and renaissance Europe.

Should I run out and have my kids tested?

No. Arsenic does not accumulate in the body. It moves in and out quickly. A spot test is not meaningful. Think of eating trace amounts of arsenic like eating the charred part of a piece of steak.


To lower arsenic levels or any other potential contaminant on food, wash, wash, wash:

-Wash your hands before you prepare food.

– Wash your child’s hands before she eats.

Wash your produce (meat does not need to be washed).

Also, serve a variety of foods to minimize the chances your family will be exposed to a large quantity of any potential toxin found in one food source.

What about rice cereal? Is it safe for my baby?

The jury is still out. For now, limit the amount of rice cereal you give to your baby. For details and the latest updates


Tonight my family will be eating ribs and rice…just hold the arsenic.

Naline Lai, MD with Julie Kardos, MD

With thanks to Melisa Lai Becker, MD, director of medical toxicology of the Cambridge Health Alliance

©2012 Two Peds in a Pod®


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