Dangerous levels of arsenic in 10% of rice
By Charles Clover, Environment Editor
A third of baby rice tested by the Food Standards Agency contains high levels of arsenic, one of the worst cancer causing chemicals, a leading expert has said.
Prof Andrew Meharg of Aberdeen University, who is conducting a major study of arsenic in rice for the Food Standards Agency, said that around 10 per cent of all rice on British shelves contained levels of arsenic that the Chinese would consider damaging to health.
The EU has no standard for arsenic in food and Britain’s level was set in 1959 before the cancer-causing effects of arsenic were understood. Prof Meharg says the most stringent standard is set by the Chinese, who are big eaters of rice.
Ironically, the most likely to be exposed to high arsenic levels, he said, were infants, buyers of macro-biotic healthfood, people who buy rice milk and the Bangladeshi community, who buy a lot of rice from their home country where water naturally contaminated with arsenic are used to irrigate crops.
Prof Meharg said that rice from some countries had arsenic levels five times higher than others, so concerned consumers could easily reduce their intake.
Rice from the United States, France, Italy and Bangladesh had the highest levels of inorganic arsenic. About 30 per cent of American long grain rice samples tested contain levels above the Chinese standard.
The highest levels of arsenic in the world had just been found in French rice, he said. Rice from India and Egypt had the lowest levels, with basmati rice some of the safest.
Prof Meharg said a recent Food Standards Agency study of baby rice had found that out of 13 samples, four exceeded the Chinese standard of 0.15 parts per million.
Prof Meharg told a conference organised by the Royal Geographical Society: “The majority of babyfood has relatively high levels of arsenic – the top end of the range. This is potentially harmful because they have small bodies and so it is a large proportion of rice – rice pudding, rice crackers and powdered rice.”
He said that brown rice, favoured by macro-biotic, healthfood fans, had even higher levels of arsenic. Bran from the United States used as a food supplement had levels approaching Britain’s food standard of one part per million, set in 1959.
“That is incredibly high,” he added.
People who have given up dairy products and taken up rice milk were also at risk, he said. Some rice milk contains arsenic at levels which exceed the standards set for drinking water of 10 parts per billion, however since milk is classified as a food this was not regarded as harmful.
The Food Standards Agency says the level of arsenic found in rice is not a risk to health in Britain, where people eat relatively little rice, and simply advises people to eat a balanced diet. It measures risk differently to Prof Meharg, across total food consumption.
A spokesman described Prof Meharg’s way of pointing out the risk of rice foodstuffs as “not particularly helpful.”
Arsenic contamination of imported rice represents the tip of the iceberg of a global problem of arsenic in water supplies affecting more than 70 countries and 137 million people.
Bangladesh is the worst country affected where hundreds of thousands of people are likely to die from arsenic causing fatal cancers of the lung, bladder and skin.
Prof Allan Smith, an adviser to the World Health Organisation, said arsenic posed health risks “exceeding every other potential water contaminant.”
One in ten people exposed long term to more than 500 micrograms of arsenic per litre would die of cancer.
Arsenic has been found in water in the North of England, the Midlands and mid-Wales but tests and treatment by water companies mean that public supplies are safe to drink, according to experts.
Prof Smith advised people with private water supplies to ensure that they were tested.