Against the grain

UC Davis scientists explore solutions for removing arsenic from groundwater—and foods like rice and fish

UC Davis experts agree: Don’t eat too much of anything—even rice—and eat fresh, healthy foods.

UC Davis experts agree: Don’t eat too much of anything—even rice—and eat fresh, healthy foods.

Arsenic in rice? But we put rice in everything.

That’s the shocked response from many households to the recent news that Consumer Reports magazine’s testing had found inorganic arsenic in more than 200 samples of 65 different rice products.

Arsenic, an element that is used industrially to strengthen metal alloys, is found in both organic and inorganic forms—and not just in the rice, according to Peter G. Green, a researcher at UC Davis’ John Muir Institute of the Environment.

“You can get arsenic in any plant,” he told SN&R. “The process is simple. If arsenic is in the groundwater and plants put their roots in the ground, there will be arsenic in the plants.”

While Green said that arsenic can be found in a variety of foods, including apple juice, it’s most likely to be found in fish and rice.

“But if you set aside the fish, rice is the going to be the higher” in the amount of arsenic absorbed and passed on, he said. Rice is “efficient at taking up water, and the arsenic is in the water.”

Green noted that toxicity depends entirely on what kind of arsenic it is and how much a human is likely to receive. Inorganic arsenic is far more toxic to humans than the organic type. Unfortunately, in groundwater, inorganic arsenic is much more common.

“Removing it from the groundwater is a major goal for us, and at UC Davis, we’re working on ways to do that,” Green said. “Since it’s suspended in the water, we’re working on ways to pull it out.”

Arsenic in food crops is a problem worldwide, but especially in Asia.

“We have an advantage in California,” Green said. “We don’t have nearly the arsenic in our groundwater that they have in some parts of the world. For instance Asia, particularly Bangladesh. But arsenic can be found in our water.”

The long-term solution is, Green said, to get the arsenic out of the groundwater. But there are also other agricultural options, such as growing rice in a way that minimizes the amount of arsenic it takes up from water and soil, as well as developing strains of rice that are less efficient at absorbing arsenic.

Dr. Marc Schenker, a professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences at UC Davis, has done research on arsenic levels in kelp products that are sold as dietary supplements.

“I’m delighted to see attention paid to this issue,” he told SN&R. “It’s a contaminant that should be regulated and monitored.”

Schenker compared arsenic in rice with arsenic and mercury in fish. “We’ve known for a long time that arsenic is in seafood along with mercury. The basic recommendation is to eat seafood in moderation,” he said. “You won’t have trouble with eating fish a couple of times a week, but if you eat it every day, you could have some problems.”

The key, he said, is moderation. But that doesn’t mean we should just ignore the presence of arsenic in rice.

“Over the long term, we need to see that we’re addressing monitoring arsenic in rice,” he said. Arsenic is “ubiquitous in soils.”

“There are places with very high accumulations, and in those instances there needs to be remediation,” Schenker said. “Arsenic is natural: It occurs in the Earth’s crust. That doesn’t mean we can’t monitor it and set limits for what’s acceptable in food.”

Ultimately, the experts agree on the best advice. Schenker quoted well-known foodie author Michael Pollan and pointed out that “if you don’t eat too much of anything, you’re probably OK. Eat good, fresh, healthy foods, all in moderation.”

He did note that information about the levels of arsenic in rice would be of interest to people who are following a gluten-free diet.

“Gluten-free diets tend to be high in rice,” he said. “You’ve solved one problem and created another, so vary the grains.”

Green agrees. “Eat a variety of food, and you’ll probably be good.”