There have been numerous reports regarding arsenic levels in a variety of foods, with particular concern for rice and rice based infant cereals. The rice plant tends to take up soil arsenic at a higher rate compared to other grain plants. As a result, there are arsenic levels reported at 0.1mcg/serving in cereals to 7.2mcg/serving in brown rice. Now, arsenic is a naturally occurring metal which exists in a variety of sources, mostly in the non-toxic organic form (for example, seafood). Inorganic arsenic–the toxic type–can be found in minute amounts in drinking water (the Institute of Medicine sets safe level as 10 parts per billion) Inorganic arsenic was banned from use in home products by the EPA in 1991 but remains in use in agricultural and industrial agents. As a result, there are routes for toxic arsenic to find its way into the water we drink and the soil growing our food and under our feet. There can be numerous serious health effects in children from chronic arsenic poisoning–from intellectual disability, damage to lung and kidney, and skin cancer.
The good news is that, while there are no specific arsenic levels established as “safe” in food, most toxicologists still feel that the levels found in foods, including rice based, are not generally of great concern for most people. So no cause for alarm. However, there are steps that parents can take to further limit exposure risk. For one, be sure to offer your child a varied diet. I follow current AAP guidelines and recommend infants start vegetables first(yellow, then green) followed by meat, THEN cereal and fruit. Use more non-rice cereals like barley, buckwheat, oatmeal, or quinoa. When preparing rice dishes, boil in 1:10 ratio to water and drain all excess out before eating.
Finally, advocacy:its no secret that the current political trends are focusing more attention on the outlook of industry with respect to the use of chemicals as aids to our economy as opposed to the effects on our environment. Certainly, we should seek balance between those two legitimate needs. However, we should all try to remember that these rules as they apply to the regulation and de-regulation of chemicals like arsenic can cause real and permanent harm to real children. Let’s keep that in mind going forward.