Toxin Found in Most U.S. Rice Causes Genetic Damage

By Guest Blogger | August 2, 2013 2:06 pm

By Deborah Blum

bowl of rice

It’s been more than a decade since scientists first raised an alarm about arsenic levels in rice—an alarm based on the realization that rice plants have a natural ability to absorb the toxic element out of the soil.

Since then study after study has confirmed that rice products contain more arsenic than those of any other grain. In response, consumer health advocates have pushed for regulatory agencies to set a safety standard for rice (more on that story in my forthcoming feature story in the October 2013 issue of Discover).

China, a high rice-consumption country, has already moved to do so. The World Health Organization is currently taking comments on a proposed safety standard. And last year—in a somewhat grudging response to pressure from activist groups in this country—the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that it was also studying the issue.

Waiting for Regulation

And studying and studying, apparently. Although the FDA released some data on arsenic contamination of rice last fall—in direct response to a comprehensive report on the issue from Consumers Union researchers—the agency has yet to provide any further information or to set a deadline on when it might set a protective limit.

In frustration, public health researchers at Consumers Union and the attorney general of Illinois, Lisa Madigan, last month wrote to the FDA asking why the agency was moving so slowly to protect American consumers, underlining the point that the agency’s preliminary results found the taint of arsenic in pretty much every rice product tested.

In the weeks since then the FDA has neither budged nor attempted to clarify the situation for the public. A story on the subject by the Chicago Tribune noted that when queried the FDA refused to provide any information (my experience with this agency, by the way). And the USA Rice Federation insisted,  “no arsenic related health effects from eating rice are known” (also my experience with the association).

However those assertions—and the agency’s apparently reluctant approach—may need revising: A study released last week has shown the first direct link between rice consumption and arsenic-induced genetic damage.

Spotting Damaged Cells

Researchers from the University of Manchester and the CSIR-Indian Institute of Chemical Biology studied 400 people living in the West Bengal region of India for whom rice was a dietary staple but who were not exposed to arsenic through other sources, such as drinking water.

They collected subjects’ urine and screened thousands of cells shed from the lining of the urinary tract (found floating in urine). They focused on these cells because they can be acquired through a simple non-invasive procedure and because arsenic has been linked to diseases of the gastrointestinal system.

The researchers were specifically looking for micronuclei, aberrant nucleus-like growths that form in damaged cells. Micronuclei testing is a standard screening measure for compounds that cause genetic damage (sometimes referred to as genotoxic), and which are thus considered a cancer risk. Arsenic is linked to a host of human cancers, including malignancies of both bladder and lungs.

A Diet of Rice

The scientists also ran a chemical analysis of arsenic in cooked rice provided by the test subjects. Since subjects mainly get rice from the same place year-round—either their own fields or neighboring fields—the researchers could calculate a consistent level of exposure from the rice products in question.

When the two variables were analyzed the researchers found a clear association between the level of arsenic in rice and the number of abnormal micronuclei in subjects’ cells. The findings were reported last week in Scientific Reports.

In particular, the authors noted measurable cell damage when the arsenic concentration in rice was at or above 2 milligrams/kilogram (or about 2 parts per million). Interestingly, this is the safety level for inorganic arsenic compounds now being proposed by the World Health Organization. These inorganic compounds (a chemical term meaning they contain no carbon) are considered the most poisonous arsenic compounds.

Increasing Concerns

Though this is the first study to solidly link arsenic in rice to cellular damage, past research has shown that the element is absorbed into the body via rice consumption. One example is a 2011 study by medical epidemiologist Margaret Karagas of Dartmouth College and her colleagues. The Dartmouth group looked at pregnant women in the New Hampshire area who were eating rice on a regular basis. They found that arsenic levels in these women’s urine were up to 56 percent higher than in women who avoided eating rice.

The recent results put new emphasis on why that matters: “Although concerns about arsenic in rice have been raised for some time now, to our knowledge, this is the first time a link between consumption of arsenic-bearing rice and genetic damage has been demonstrated,” said Professor David Polya, who led the Manchester team.

Polya added that the study “vindicates increasing concerns” about the adequacy of regulation of arsenic in rice—the exact concerns raised by consumer health advocates in the United States last month, and last year. The FDA, nudged by organizations such as the Consumers Union, did set a safety limit on arsenic in apple juice this summer—choosing 10 parts per billion, the same level set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for drinking water.

But for rice, as they say, the ball is in the FDA’s court. And we are waiting for the return.

Image by Elena Elisseeva / Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: arsenic, food
  • Akira Bear

    The FDA has proven that it exists solely for the benefit of corporate power. Don’t hold your breath. They could care less what happens to us.

    • JD

      Your right, we live in an age of where corporate fascism reigns
      supreme. And sadly too often we find the media being a puppet in the in the
      corporate led United States Governments propaganda machine in a vain effort to
      brain wash the masses through use of carefully worded falsified information. ;)

      • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Guy Rich

        Vacuous paranoid ramblings don’t contribute much to rational
        discussion. Federal agencies ARE influenced by a wide variety of
        interests, good and bad. Vote. Pay taxes. Write your representatives
        and senators. Understand that business also has a seat at the table.
        Understand compromise

    • JEFFIE FREEDOM

      Part of the problem may be that the agency is looking after too many people. Perhaps when you are at the point of being responsible for the safety of 300 million people, all the data just becomes a bunch of impersonal numbers. Where if you are the health agency for a smaller country, you might feel more responsibility to this smaller community of people which you are connected to.

      On the other hand, part of the problem may also lie in our own desire to demonise organizations like the FDA. I highly recommend an article titled “5 Reasons Humanity Desperately Wants Monsters To Be Real”.

      • http://pixelmatortutorials.net PMtuts

        The people working at the FDA are part of these 300 million people so I doubt they look at it in a ‘just a bunch of numbers’ kind of way. The FDA has a very bad track record where it repeatedly puts economic interest above the health of the people. Hence they are taking care of the wrong agenda.

        • JEFFIE FREEDOM

          The FDA has a very bad track record with respect to tobacco, and IMO they have not made a fastidious effort to protect the population from BSE, but are these not the exception rather than the rule?

          With regard to the other suggestion, I just wonder whether when you go beyond a certain population size you begin to lose a sense of community obligation from people working in government agencies?

          • http://kiloseven.blogspot.com K7AAY

            The FDA has been barred from doing anything with tobacco for many, many years. Congress prevented them from regulating it at all. Don’t blame the FDA, blame the Congress.

    • alisha652

      as Florence responded I cannot believe that a student can earn $9292 in a few weeks on the computer. did you look at this page w­w­w.K­E­P­2.c­o­m

  • teekayem

    Arsenic is a main ingradient of widely used ‘rat poisons’. So it is the revenge of the ‘rats’, sort of

  • so

    It seems to me, if rice is a grain that absorbs arsenic from the soil, then there may well be other types of plants that would absorb arsenic and other types of toxins (lead, cadmium, uranium, flouride, etc…) that we would also need to test for. These “tests” would perhaps result in some kind of database: don’t grow rice in high arsenic soils, don’t grow carrots in high uranium soils, etc… The goverment has maps that show the concentration of some of these toxins in the soil. For example, Santa Monica, I believe has high levels of uranium in the soil, and Radon gas (a byproduct of high uranium in soil). Santa Monica, though a beautiful place with high realty prices, is not really a suitable place for people to live or grow crops. AND, some parts of Southern California are also high in Uranium, yet we get a large amount of our produce from this region. In-depth government soil studies could show that some of our most productive arable land is not really suited for growing some, or perhaps, ALL types of crops. I don’t really want to imply anything sinister, but it may be that the FDA already has some kind of knowlegde related to this, and is trying to deflect/bury the issue in order to defer the economic costs while worrying about the potential legal costs related to people around the world being secretly poisoned by what appears to be “good” food. Something to ponder… : – /

    • Wayne Lusvardi

      Hey, I could name a huge man-made water reservoir in California that is sitting on top of a uranium deposit.

      • Sani Fornus

        Please do.

      • annie

        hey wayne, don’t play fda, just name the reservoir.

  • http://pixelmatortutorials.net PMtuts

    Would be interested to know how all this arsenic was introduced into the ground in the first place. It’s nevertheless amazing how much poison we’ve introduced into our food chain, and how many dangerous substances we put in our products and food. Still people are wondering why the incidence of cancer is increasing.

    • http://pdiff.weebly.com/ Pdiff

      Arsenic was commonly applied as a pesticide in the past (including organic operations), but is not used anymore and hasn’t been for a while. Smelting, mining and coal fired power plants are probably the most common sources now, although in the US, these too have been greatly reduced due to pollution controls. While it is true we have put some toxic items in the environment, there were plenty of them their to begin with. Nature is anything but benign. It is also arguable whether changes in cancer rates are due to changes in such toxins or to better diagnostics and longer lifespans. Fortunately, survivability of many cancers is going up.

    • http://kiloseven.blogspot.com K7AAY

      Arsenic is in the periodic table. It’s a naturally occurring element. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arsenic If you don’t want arsenic then buy rice which is grown in arsenic-free rice paddies.

  • John Brabant

    Why is it when the US EPA discovers a toxin exposure that needs to be
    controlled, it makes the study “draft” and “confidential”, never letting
    it go final? The answer is they work for industry. Not long, the
    Environmental Working Group acquired a “draft” and “confidential” study
    which found that teflon from cooking utensils, particularly where
    overheated, was ending up in our bodies and permanently in our cells. A
    good employee “leaked” leaked the study. Instead of a mea culpa, the
    illustrious US EPA went on a hunt for the “leaker”. When China got hold
    of and read the “draft” report, it banned the sale of all teflon
    cookware in the country. And this “red communist” state that US
    propagandists would say doesn’t care about people, also required the
    stores to immediately remove all cookware from the shelves so that no
    more would be sold. Now, this is China, the world’s largest
    manufacturer of teflon coated cookware. To date, the US EPA has not
    acted on its “draft” reports recommendations to ban the sale of this
    poison to US consumers and continues to cover it up. The commonly used
    term these days is industry “capture”, which is the term used to
    describe the all too commonplace situation where the governmental entity
    that serves to regulate an industry ends up being captured by the very
    industry it regulates and becomes a defacto advocate for the regulated
    entity. The arsenic in rice controversy is yet another sad example of
    our government not working for the US people, but for industry interests
    and feigning that it is acting as our regulatory advocate. Shame on
    you EPA and FDA!

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Where will such studies end?

    There are studies showing plants leach nitrates (nitrogen) from the soil.

    There are studies showing plants leach perchlorate from the soil.

    The assumption that there is some sort of toxic free plants or world may be erroneous. Paracelsus once famously said “the poison is in the dosage.” Everything is toxic dependent upon its concentration. And what concentrates substances are environmental traps: underground water basins, energy tight buildings that trap asbestos and anthrax, air basins that trap pollution, and the human body that can trap any substance at poisonous levels. Hey, iron buildup in the body can lead to cancer just as putting iron on plants makes them grow. It is the body — the trap — not the substance that causes the problem.

    The entire paradigm of toxic substances is fallacious but there is now such a huge industry of toxic substance control that the paradigm can not be undone.

    • jaia

      Did you read the article? It said the researchers found damage at reasonable doses.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    I should have added: brown rice is known to chelate or remove iron from the human body. So you remove the rice and you get excess iron buildup. Kind of like the environmentalists who removed a predator animal from an island to protect rabbits and the entire island became rabbit city. The naivete of environmental scientists never ceases to amaze me

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Jonathan Tracey

      Rice removes iron from the human body? I honestly never knew that.

      • alex

        Actually, any grain (wheat, oat, barley and rice) has the ability to chelate iron, manganese, calcium, copper and zinc from the body due to the presence of phytates. Especially whole grains. This is why it may be a good thing to limit their consumption. Guess why cultures that do not consume grains have perfect dental health and no osteoporosis.

  • Jonathan Neufeld

    Reading between the lines it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure-out that eating food is just not worth the risk.

  • rampantlion

    Arkansas. Former cotton fields are now being used to grow rice. When they were cotton fields, they were treated with arsenic-laced pesticides. Get your rice from elsewhere, if possible.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Elsie Harris

    Is the arsenic there from the soil? From the process of making the brown, natural rice white? In the rice seed? Where does it come from?

    • Belden Erhart

      rumor has it, cotton cultivated on land required arsenic for pest control.

  • AG

    Obviously, those deadly rice increase Chinese IQ and life expectancy compared to non-toxic countries. lol.

  • chiliboots

    Confusing, and inconclusive. There is no story, here; only suspicions.

    If you are going to sound an alarm like this, you need to have facts,
    not conjecture, and surmise and guessing-games. Too much at stake.

    • hum_dinger

      Ok – how about these facts – in the USA, China and Japan, human sewage is heavily used as “fertilizer” to grow crops. This material contains elevated arsenic as well as many other pollutants which will be absorbed by crops. Those nutrients not absorbed will run off into creeks and streams. Google “sewage sludge”, “biosolids” and “toxic sludge is good for you” to get more informed.

      The “Class B” variety, containing human parasites, prions, and pathogens that can kill, are legally spread in many areas of the country. And its legal.

      If you were of brown skin, didnt have a permit and spread this junk, you would be sent to gitmo and they’d throw away the key as this would be deemed “bioterrorism”.

      Look up EPA regulation Title 40 Section 503 Part B “Land application of Sludge”.

      Its everywhere in USA.

  • Awareguy

    One thing the article didn’t mention is that arsenic,like lead, is a cumulative toxin….meaning it does not metabolize but continues to increase in concentration in your system.

  • Kaos Krumpy

    The EPA and FDA will just raise the limit so as to not impact the rice flow.

  • jamescrackscorn

    Why can’t they isolate the gene that allows this plant to do this and breed it out…?

  • Franky

    Question, does brown rice fall into the family of rice or is it a different kind of grain? I read somewhere a while ago that brown rice was a completely different grain from regular rice.
    Hope someone can give me a well supported answer.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Caitlin St John

      Brown rice and white rice are the same grain. The only difference is that white rice has had the brown layer polished away, which lowers the nutritional value of the grain but also makes it easier to stiore for long periods of time without turning rancid as brown rice will. Here’s a quote from Wikipedia’s “Rice” article: “The seeds of the rice plant are first milled using a rice huller to remove the chaff (the outer husks of the grain). At this point in the process, the product is called brown rice. The milling may be continued, removing the bran, i.e., the rest of the husk and the germ, thereby creating white rice. White rice, which keeps longer, lacks some important nutrients; moreover, in a limited diet which does not supplement the rice, brown rice helps to prevent the disease beriberi.

      • Franky

        Thank you!

      • alex

        White rice is missing ant-inutrients as well, such as phytic acid, and poisons like lectins. They concentrate in the bran.
        Beriberi is caused by a chronic deficiency of Vitamin B1 which can be found in asparagus, kale, cauliflower, potatoes, oranges, liver (beef, pork, and chicken), and eggs, not perforce in whole grains.

  • jhon

    ok ok.. mcdonalds its good then.

  • Judith Hogan

    This is something that everyone should know about and understand!

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