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by Margaret Hartley


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Wash your rice

If rice is a part of your diet — or if the way the poisons of the world end up on your plate is the kind of thing that keeps you up at night — you no doubt know there are fresh reasons to worry.

Earlier this month, Consumer Reports released its research on arsenic in rice. Their tests of around 225 samples of rice and rice products turned up arsenic in every case, both organic arsenic and inorganic arsenic.

Arsenic is a poison, of course, as everyone from Nero to Frank Capra knows. And it doesn’t take batty old aunts to poison you. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says chronic exposure to arsenic can cause sores and skin lesions, and increase your risk of lung, skin and bladder cancers.

Arsenic is used to strengthen copper and lead, and is used in pesticides, herbicides and as a lumber preservative. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration defines arsenic as a “chemical element present in the environment from both natural and human sources, including erosion of arsenic-containing rocks, volcanic eruptions, contamination from mining and smelting ores, and previous or current use of arsenic-containing pesticides.”

Organic arsenic, defined as arsenic in combination with carbon, is less toxic than inorganic arsenic, defined as arsenic combined with any other element, according to the EPA.

And while the EPA and the FDA don’t set limits for arsenic in food, there are limits set for safe drinking water — 10 parts per billion. Consumer Reports didn’t find samples or rice products with inorganic arsenic at that level, but found many samples where the combination of organic and inorganic arsenic far exceeded that level.

So how does arsenic get into rice?

Rice is a grass, grown on flooded fields. So if it’s standing in contaminated water, or water flowing over contaminated soils, those contaminants are going to be pulled up from the roots into the seeds — the part of the rice we eat.

Most of the rice in the United States is grown in the South — 79 percent of the rice we eat is from Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas, the report says. Those states share a history of growing cotton, a crop traditionally grown with lots of insecticides and herbicides.

The worst of the arsenic-containing pesticides were banned 30 years ago because they also contained lead. But banning their use does not take them out of the soil: “Residues from the decades of use of lead-arsenate insecticides linger in agricultural soil today, even though their use was banned in the 1980s,” Consumer Reports says, adding that non-lead arsenic herbicides continue to be used in cotton production.

Arsenic is also used in commercial chicken and pig feed, to “prevent disease and promote growth” and “fertilizer made from poultry waste can contaminate crops with inorganic arsenic,” according to the report.

The rice products tested included both commercially grown rice and organically grown rice — that is, rice grown without pesticides. And there was no difference in the arsenic levels, so buying organic rice won’t help. That’s because even if you can control what you put on your crops, you can’t control what’s in the groundwater.

It reminds me of the Stanford University report that came out a few months back, saying that organic food is not more nutritious than food grown with commercial pesticides.

To me, that report missed the mark. I think one of the major reasons to grow organically is to protect our soil and water. And the rice report seems like a good indication that we have failed to do that.

One of the things the Consumer Reports study found was that rice grown in California, and rice grown in Thailand and India, had lower arsenic levels than rice grown in the south-central United States.

The report also found that people eating rice had higher levels of arsenic in their urine, the common way arsenic levels are tested: “Our resulting analysis of 3,633 study participants found that on average, people who reported eating one rice food item had total urinary arsenic levels 44 percent greater than those who had not, and people who reported consuming two or more rice products had levels 70 percent higher than those who had no rice.”

And just to make you worry more, brown rice, considered healthier than white rice, generally had higher levels of arsenic, according to Consumer Reports. That’s because brown rice contains the bran, the outer hull of the rice seed, where some of the arsenic is stored.

So do we give up rice, or limit consumption?

The FDA responded to the Consumer Reports study by releasing a FAQs sheet, in which it called the report of rice consistent with its own findings but did not recommend any changes in rice consumption: “Our advice for consumers is to eat a balanced diet including a wide variety of grains, not only for good nutrition but also to minimize any potential consequences from consuming any one particular food.”

The FDA adds that it will do further testing, looking at 1,000 rice product samples “to better understand the exposure to arsenic in rice, conduct a risk analysis, and consider steps to reduce long-term exposure.”

There are some small changes you can make to reduce the arsenic in your own bowl of rice. Before you cook rice, rinse it. And instead of cooking rice the usual way — cooking two parts water to one part rice until the water is absorbed — cook it the way you cook pasta. Use six parts water to one part rice, boil the rice until it’s tender and then strain the excess water out. Consumer Reports says those two techniques will remove about 30 percent of the inorganic arsenic in the rice.

For cereals, especially baby cereals, it’s harder to remove arsenic and the report recommends limiting servings to one per day and varying rice products with other grains.

One of the primary reasons we moved to the southern Adirondacks was that my husband was looking for hilly land, where he didn’t have to worry about pesticide drift. While he wanted to farm, he didn’t want to do it around too many other farms, where their practices would end up in our soil.

So we moved to a climate not particularly conducive to gardening, where we try to grow the bulk of the food we eat. We’ve experimented some with growing grains — wheat, rye and oats.

Now I wish we could grow our own rice, in our own soil, using our own rainwater. Not that avoidance is always the best policy, but I don’t know how to erase a couple of hundred years of cotton growing, and that’s not really something I want to be eating.


Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.

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