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“Concerning” Levels of Arsenic in Rice?! The Canary, The Coal Mine, and Our Kids

Tara O'Brady

A few months ago, brown rice syrup – and organic infant formulas containing the sweetener – came under media fire for containing small amounts of arsenic. While the headlines caught my eye (I sometimes use brown rice syrup in baking as a more nutritious, balancing alternative to sugar ), I assumed this particular media storm was, as most tend to be, much ado about nothing; the media loves to take pot-shots at organic food, but the headlines and upheaval behind them are frequently one-sided, or straight-up incomplete. My suspicions were confirmed – or so I thought – a few weeks later when I skimmed a follow-up story that said the arsenic in question was not the kind that’s harmful; it was a non-issue born of over-simplification and a whole lot of mommy-scaring hype.

As much as I’d deliberately kept a cool head about the whole thing, I did breathe a small sigh of relief. The ‘safe type’ of arsenic distinction reassured me; I know of others like it that make all the difference in something being hazardous or helpful. There are also two types of fluoride (calcium and sodium fluoride), for example; unfortunately, the type that’s in municipal water systems (sodium fluoride) actually causes all kinds of health problems, from generalized apathy, to neurological disorders and bone decay. Likewise, there are two – actually three, but we’ll discuss two – types of vitamin D; while vitamin D3 is an amazing boon to the human body, vitamin D2 (the kind that’s most frequently added to cereals and other food items as a “fortifier”), as the Livestrong foundation website says, “is not normally found in the body and has no purpose in humans.” It also causes harm. As much as the fluoride and vitamin D things freak me out, especially as a mom, I actually felt rather heartened, on a fundamental level, to read that rice (and its syrup) – long revered as a sacred and ‘super’ food among everyone from macrobiotics to Buddhist monks – is still a nourishing staple. When RICE becomes toxic, I thought, We’ll know there’s real trouble in paradise.

That prospect seemed a long way off, actually. Sure, there’s sodium fluoride in our water, and sugar (which is hugely addictive, and maxing out American pancreatic systems like whoa) is added to everything. But I’ve done my research, and these things can be avoided. In fact, in the case of my kid, they kind of need to be. He’s crazy allergic to a whole lot of foods, which was really rough on all of us for a while, but has resulted in his eating an incredibly healthful, whole foods diet consisting of fresh fruits and vegetables, “happy” meats , raw milk and – because it’s the only grain available to him – rice (lots of it). We’ve found our ‘new normal’ and we’re rocking it. Kaspar, for his part, is thriving.

But now, rice (not just rice syrup) has come under fire again … and again for containing arsenic. A research team working for Consumer Reports surveyed a whole range of popular brands of rice and, apparently, turned up ‘concerning’ levels of arsenic in all of them. I’ve done some additional digging and discovered that the testing was in fact undertaken with regard to the dangerous type of arsenic –inorganic arsenic (i.e. not the kind that occurs naturally, and not the kind your body will quickly filter), a known human carcinogen .

The jury’s still out on how much of a threat actually eating rice is. But the concern is that, over time, inorganic arsenic will build up in people’s bodies, causing cancers, hypertension, diabetes, and more (as it has in Bangladesh, where millions of people have been drinking high levels of inorganic arsenic in their water). Experts say they need to conduct more testing in order to confirm whether eating rice will cause these problems, (“the health effects of arsenic in food are still unkown”), but the Consumer Reports study’s lead researcher, Urshavi Rangan, has emphasized that children – with their smaller bodies and more sensitive systems – are more vulnerable to arsenic’s effects. And, children tend to eat more rice products than adults; not only is brown rice syrup used as a sweetener in many natural foods, but babies also eat a lot of rice cereals, rice bars, and so forth. This new alert has, for this reason, caused particular alarm among parents, who aren’t exactly comfortable with the ‘jury’s still out’ ruling if it implicates their kids as a part of the ongoing experiment.

(The FDA, meanwhile, recently found similar results in its own studies, and is now waiting on setting regulations until more information is known.)

What’s a parent to do? Feed your kids a varied diet, the experts say. Rinse their rice until the water runs clear. Make sure it’s sourced from California, where arsenic levels in soil are lower than in the Southern states. As a parent of a kid whose options for a varied diet – at least on the grains front –are limited, I’m definitely unnerved by these studies, and plan to rinse and source accordingly (and I’ll probably worry a little bit when I have time). But I’m not freaking out. Just as Kaspar’s food allergy situation has resulted in his eating an organic, whole-foods diet, it’s also resulted in my learning a lot about the body and its innate detoxifying systems -- and how we can help those systems do their jobs, even as they face off against weird synthetic toxins the likes of which human bodies have never before seen. I’m not happy about the rice thing, at all, but I recognize it as one symptom of a much larger problem; our world is becoming increasingly toxic. There IS trouble in paradise. We know this. It sucks. But there are some things we can do.

Arsenic levels are rising in rice because they’re rising in soil. They’ve risen in soil because they’ve been sprayed there (as fertilizers…). Rice grows in wet soil and thus absorbs its contents more easily, which makes it a perfect canary in the coal mine, if you will. But arsenic isn’t the only dangerous substance showing up in our dirt. Interestingly, a whole lot of other toxic stuff, including a range of heavy metals , is also appearing in greater amounts, in our soil, water, air, and bodies. And, YES, chemicals and heavy metals do build up in our systems and make us sick. And, yes, kids are extra-susceptible.

This is exactly why I feed my child organic food. It’s important to minimize the levels, and combinations, of weird toxic substances we put into our children’s bodies, and choosing organic, whole foods—which at least contain fewer pesticide residues and are free of GMOs (pesticides and GMOs are also totally experimental in their long-term effects, and currently A-okay by the FDA) is an important step in doing this; organic brown rice, arsenic or no arsenic, is still a WAY better choice than neon orange crackers, or bright pink squeezable sugar-yogurt, for our kids. It doesn’t help to worry, really; as a parent, I accept that we live in a toxic world, and I make the best choices I can. (FYI, I contacted my very favorite Ayurvedic and wellness expert about the rice study, asking if we should cut back el kiddo’s consumption. He said the study is not cause for alarm, but stressed the importance of choosing organic foods: “The interesting truth is that many veggies, foods and even baby foods have more heavy metals than what is considered safe according to some standard. The real problem is that no one knows what levels are truly safe. Just be sure to use organic food, as it will have far fewer man-made contaminants.”)

Making these decisions individually does make a difference. It at least supports the kind of farming that nourishes, instead of poisons, the soil. But keeping our food and water supplies safe for our children is ultimately a collective choice. Water, air, soil – these things move around the planet. Pesticides, fertilizers and toxic wastes created on the other side of the country, or the world, ultimately make their way to our soil, and onto our plates. Yes, let’s take notice when rice contains ‘concerning’ levels of arsenic, and let’s ask the bigger questions, pay attention to who’s hanging out with who in policy-land (*cough* Monsanto + FDA) and pressure the people who represent us in setting standards and making policies to make wise, sustainable decisions for our families, and our future.

What do you think? Do your kids eat a lot of rice? Will you be scaling that back because of the recent study?