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Arsenic in our Food (and Public Health Laboratories)

By Surili Sutaria, senior specialist, Environmental Health, APHL

Over a year ago consumers expressed outrage following a Dr. Oz episode on arsenic levels in apple juice. The episode highlighted a Consumer Reports study that drew attention to arsenic in rice. The media coverage underscored that food and beverages represent the largest source of arsenic exposure for most Americans, yet arsenic is currently only regulated in drinking water.

Apple juice

Arsenic in drinking water comes either from naturally-occurring sources in the soil or from agricultural or industrial byproducts. For health reasons (arsenic is a well-known poison), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set a maximum contaminant level of 10 parts per billion for inorganic arsenic.

You may have noticed the reference to inorganic arsenic, which is one of the three forms of arsenic. The inorganic form of arsenic, created when arsenic combines with elements other than carbon, is potentially harmful to humans. Exposure to inorganic arsenic increases the risk for bladder, kidney, liver, lung and skin cancers. But there are limitations to this knowledge, such as at what concentration and over what period of time is arsenic considered harmful to humans. Although the type of arsenic predominately found in foods is organic, the World Health Organization states that some common foods in our diet (like rice, juices and vegetables) do contain inorganic arsenic.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s deputy commissioner for foods, Michael Taylor, stated that the agency’s ongoing data collection and analysis aims to provide a basis for determining action to reduce exposure to arsenic in foods. Still, though, concerns escalate as consumers realize that infant foods such as rice cereal and some formulas contain potentially-contaminated rice. The lack of understanding of the science has prompted both the public and the media to demand action.

How can my state or local public health laboratory take action?

Public health laboratories have the technology and the knowledge to test for arsenic in drinking water, food and people, and to potentially help answer questions being raised by the media. This testing capability is largely due to CDC’s investment in chemical threat preparedness at the state and local levels. Funded laboratories looking to use their instruments more fully may consider biomonitoring – a tool used to assess people’s exposure to chemicals and toxic substances in the body – as an option. This dual-use opportunity will not only bridge gaps in research, but also lead to policy decisions that may help protect the health of Americans.

“I have long thought that public health laboratories should take advantage of ‘dual use’ opportunities offered by the CDC via our chemical threat funded instruments…especially in the realm of ICP-MS testing of heavy metals,” Dr. Patrick Luedtke, senior public health officer from the Lane County Department of Health and Human Services.

Recently, the Washington State Department of Health used their CDC Laboratory Response Network funding to conduct a state-wide biomonitoring study to test arsenic and other metals in humans and their environments. To learn more about how Washington State Department of Health completed their study, please see the “Efforts to Reduce Harmful Exposures to Washingtonians” article in the Winter 2013 issue of APHL’s Lab Matters.



  • Interesting article. Many of the agriculture sector food safety laboratories have been looking into the issue of Arsenic in food through targeted surveillance testing. For example; in NY our agency has been evaluating Arsenic in apple juice and juice concentrate for several years and began surveillance testing of rice and rice-based products about two years ago. Our programs are not associated with CDC initiatives but there may be opportunities for local and state public health laboratories to collaborate with their partner agriculture sector food testing laboratories on this issue.

    • Thanks for your comments, Dan. I wonder, do you have any suggestions for APHL on how we can encourage such collaborations?

  • I completely agree with you. We have technically advanced laboratories that are capable of commencing good examination and treatment for Arsenic levels in food and drinking water. Only, a more effort from the hand of authorities is needed in this regard.

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