What is it?
Arsenic (known as As and number 33 on the Periodic Table) is an semi-metallic solid. Arsenic occurs widely in the environment from natural sources, such as deposits in the earth; and from anthropogenic (man-made) sources such as metal manufacturing, combustion of fossil fuels, and pesticide use with agricultural products.
What is it used for?
Arsenic is used as a wood preservative, as an integral electronic component, and as an ingredient in foreign pesticides. Arsenic use in the U.S. has dramatically decreased in both pesticides and wood preservatives, though wood preserved with arsenic manufactured prior to 2003 can still be used.1
Where do we find it?
Arsenic leaches from bedrock into soil and water, often as a result of mining and erosion. It also occurs in the air through the combustion of fossil fuels.
Is it safe? What is the safe level of use?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been measuring arsenic levels in food since the early 1990’s through their Total Diet Study program. FDA provides arsenic levels for many food types such as apple juice which has been a recent media focus.2 FDA considers apple juice safe to drink based on product testing.3
Limited studies indicate that arsenic may have a hormetic effect on the human body. For example, organic arsenic consumed in small doses may positively impact humans, whereas inorganic arsenic in larger doses is a human carcinogen deemed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).4 EPA set the level of arsenic allowed in drinking water at 10 parts per billion (ppb).5 While many U.S. cities use the EPA guideline to monitor levels of arsenic in city water, people living in developing countries without city testing have unknowingly consumed water containing high levels of arsenic.6
What’s the bottom line?
It is important to consider both the levels of arsenic in foods and the quantity of those foods ingested by consumers; this is usually done in a risk assessment. FDA is coordinating with EPA for the evaluation of arsenic risk assessments. FDA recommends that people “consume a variety of foods and beverages and follow a well-balanced diet consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans”.3
What do other countries say?
While the U.S. and Europe have sharply curtailed their use of arsenic in manufacturing, many other countries still regularly use arsenic as a pesticide and in treating wood products. The European Food Safety Authority determined that arsenic should be reduced in food, and that more data is needed.7
Why is there a concern?
The media has recently been intently focused on high levels of arsenic found in rice and apple juice. Industries affected by this somewhat negative media attention have been conducting internal tests and making their own announcements to the public regarding their efforts to understand and control arsenic levels in food.
The U.S. and Europe are reducing arsenic contamination to the environment, and ultimately to our food, through stricter policies which limit industry use of arsenic. FDA and EPA are working together to evaluate the impact of arsenic exposure on human health.
Referenced sources for Arsenic: