The arsenic enters into the rice when it is grown, according to Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine. He explained the rice with the highest levels of arsenic is from Texas and Louisiana, and along the Gulf coast where fields were used to grow cotton a century ago.
"When there was cotton there they had to treat the cotton with arsenic pesticides to control the bowl weevil," he said. "Now a century later, that arsenic is still in the soil, the rice is very effective at pulling it out of the soil in and it concentrates in the rice."
Arsenic causes lung, skin and bladder cancer, Landrigan said. He added that arsenic is also very harmful to babies' brain development. If a baby is exposed to arsenic in the womb because the mother is eating arsenic or if a baby ingests arsenic in the first months of life in cereal, rice milk or other food, the arsenic could interfere with brain development, reduce the child's intelligence, and cause behavioral problems.
Landrigan recommended in the coming months and years that parents avoid rice altogether or just rice that was grown in Texas, Louisiana, and Missouri. "Stay with California rice, stay with Asian rice or when in doubt go with barley, go with oatmeal," he said. "The smart thing to do is to be concerned and not do it. ... Just avoid the rice."
Asked about adults eating rice, Landrigan said it's smart to limit the amount of rice you eat, but that you don't have to cut it out entirely. He added brown rice often contains more arsenic than white rice because it contains the plant's shells.
The FDA has released a statement on arsenic, saying, "Based on the currently available data and scientific literature the FDA does not have an adequate scientific basis to recommend changes by consumers regarding their consumption of rice and rice products"
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Two types of arsenic compounds are found in nature: organic and inorganic. Inorganic arsenic is classified as cancer-causing, while ongoing research explores the possibility that some organic arsenic may also pose risks.
FDA says its data, which found an average of 3.5 to 6.7 micrograms of inorganic arsenic in a single serving of rice or rice product, are consistent with the levels found in the Consumer Reports study.
The Consumer Reports data indicate that brown rice, which retains the outer bran, can carry higher levels of arsenic. It also suggests that rice from Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri and Texas generally shows higher levels of total and inorganic arsenic than rice samples from India, Thailand and California.