Arsenic has two chemical forms, inorganic and organic (the latter of which can be less toxic), and is naturally part of the minerals in the earth’s crust. Residues from the decades of use of lead-arsenate insecticides linger in agricultural soil today, even though their use was banned in the 1980s. Other arsenical ingredients in animal feed to prevent disease and promote growth are still permitted. Moreover, fertilizer made from poultry waste can contaminate crops with inorganic arsenic. Therefore, it’s in soil and water.
How am I exposed?
Arsenic is found in soil, treated wood, drinking water, infant cereals and certain crops like rice. Children are exposed to this chemical by playing on or touching chromate copper arsenate (CCA) treated wood. When exposed to rain and weather, arsenic leaches to the surface of the wood. When a child plays on a playground or deck made of treated wood, she gets the arsenic onto her skin, and may accidentally ingest the arsenic during normal hand to mouth contact. Certain pesticides also contain arsenic and rice absorbs arsenic from soil or water much more effectively than most plants. Infant formula made from rice has also shown to contain high levels of arsenic.
Why should I be concerned?
Arsenic is a known carcinogen, linked to skin, bladder, and lung cancers as well as diabetes and heart disease. Even very low levels of arsenic may change hormone functions, which can affect growth and development
What can government and business do?
- Federal and state governments can prohibit agricultural practices such as phasing out the use of pesticides containing arsenic, end the use of arsenic-laden manure as a fertilizer, and ban the feeding of arsenic-containing drugs and animal byproducts to animals. They can also set a limit for arsenic in rice and rice products.
- Businesses should accelerate efforts to reduce arsenic levels in rice and treated wood by phasing out CCA and arsenic in poultry food by using safer alternatives. They should also use rice with the lowest possible arsenic in products for young children, such as infant rice cereal.
How can I reduce my exposure?
- Infants should be limited to no more than 1 serving of infant rice cereal per day on average. Rice cereal can be switched out for cereals made of wheat, oatmeal, or corn grits, which contain significantly lower levels of arsenic.
- If your home is not on a public water system, have your water tested for arsenic.
- Rinse raw rice thoroughly before cooking.
- Vary your grains. The gluten-free grains amaranth, buckwheat, millet, and polenta or grits had negligible levels of inorganic arsenic. Bulgur, barley, and farro, which contain gluten, also have very little arsenic. Quinoa (also gluten-free), had average inorganic arsenic levels comparable to those of other alternative grains.
Washington Toxics Coalition provided content for this page.