Every year, news headlines appear questioning if apple juice is safe to drink because it contains arsenic. With apple cider now lining grocery store shelves, let’s take a closer look at this infamous chemical element.
A Dark Past
Arsenic, historically known as the ‘King of Poisons’ and the ‘Poison of Kings,’ has often been used to break up love triangles and get rid of political opponents throughout human history. In some ways it is the perfect poison because it has no odor, taste or smell. Arsenic trioxide could easily be mistaken for sugar and used to kill when stirred into drinks or mixed into food. But in today’s modern CSI society, it has fallen out of favor as a murder weapon beware because it does not break down quickly and is easily measured in all body parts.
The Arsenic Basics
Arsenic is a heavy metal that is a natural component of the earth’s crust and so is widely distributed throughout the environment in the air, water and land. People can be exposed to elevated levels of inorganic arsenic through drinking water, which can occur naturally in certain parts of the world including the western US. For this reason, the EPA has set a level of 10 parts per billion (ppb) as the standard for chronic exposure in drinking water.
Arsenic persists in the soil for a long time after it has been applied to crops as a pesticide or fertilizer. Plants can mistake it for essential nutrients and take it up from the soil. Thus ingestion of vegetables, fruits and other food crops (rice) can be a common source for arsenic. Note that this includes tobacco!!
Should We Be Worried About Consuming Arsenic?
Because it is in water and soil, arsenic is probably found in all foods that we eat, just at small levels that would not normally be of concern – the key point is that the “dose makes the poison,” meaning only an elevated amount would be of health concern.
Recent investigations have found arsenic in rice and apple juice. One recent study (Consumer Reports) showed 9 of 88 samples of store-bought apple and grape juices had more arsenic than the EPA allows in drinking water (10 ppb), although they were less than what the FDA allows in juice products (23 ppb). The difference is because people normally drink more water than they do apple juice. In another study, researchers reported that eating half a cup of certain types of rice a day could expose someone to just as much arsenic as a quart of water at the government’s maximum allowable limit.
Normal consumption (food in moderation as your mother told you) should not be of concern, especially because of the positive food benefits from such products as apple juice and rice. If you’re concerned you may have been exposed to arsenic in food or water, laboratories can test for arsenic in your blood, urine, or fingernails. Also, regarding arsenic from well water, you can test the well and use water filters to remove the arsenic from your drinking water. (Arsenic is regulated in city water systems).
Though rare, acute arsenic overdose and long-term exposure does carry health risks; but don’t hesitate to keep apple juice and rice in moderate levels in your normal rotation!