Recent independent product safety tests commissioned by the the New York consumer advocacy group Empire State Consumer Project showed the level of arsenic in a sample of Mott’s brand apple juice to be more than five times the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s legal limit for safe drinking water.
Arsenic, a naturally occurring element, has been used for centuries as a poison to kill animal pests — and humans. Many of the most notorious murderers in history, including the infamous Borgia family, used arsenic as a weapon of choice. Besides being poisonous to humans at high doses, arsenic is a known carcinogen. Chronic exposure to sub-poisonous levels of arsenic has been linked to an increased risk of skin cancer, lung cancer and liver cancer. Arsenic has also been implicated as a developmental toxin; several animal studies have shown in-utero exposure to arsenic can increase the risk of birth defects in mammals.
As a natural substance, arsenic can be found naturally at very low levels in soil, plants and drinking water, and most people in the world are routinely exposed to minute amounts of this naturally-occurring arsenic without serious consequences. However, industrial pollution and repeated agricultural use of animal poisons and pesticides containing arsenic can cause water and soil to become contaminated with levels of arsenic well above the natural norm.
The EPA limits arsenic in drinking water to 10 parts per billion; the Empire State Consumer Project tests revealed one sample of Mott’s juice to contain 55 parts per billion of arsenic — well above the EPA’s “safe” level for water.
Edible plants grown in soil that has been previously contaminated with arsenic can absorb unusually high levels of the element. Food crops may also become contaminated with high levels of arsenic when directly sprayed with certain chemical pesticides. Arsenic contamination of fruits and vegetables is a particular problem in China, where many toxic pesticides that have been banned in the United States and Europe for environmental or public health reasons are still in common use.
And many U.S. distributors of apple sauce and apple juice — including some organic brands and many brands that are marketed directly to children — source some or all of their apples from Chinese orchards. Set to harvest 33 million tons of apples this year, China is the world’s largest apple producer and controls an estimated 80% of the world’s apple export market.
This is, unfortunately, not the first time unsafe levels of arsenic have been found in apple juice from popular U.S. brands. In March of this year, Florida’s St. Petersburg times published an exposť that revealed potentially unsafe levels of arsenic in more than a quarter of juice samples tested. Contaminated varieties included not only the same Mott’s brand tested by Empire State Consumer Project, but also Walmart brand apple juice, Target’s Market Pantry brand, Minute Maid juice, and Apple & Eve Organic.
Popular juice brands have also been found in the past to be contaminated with potentially unsafe levels of lead. Last summer, the Environmental Law Foundation commissioned testing that found levels of lead deemed potentially unsafe by California law in 125 out of 146 kids’ juice and snack products tested. Lead-contaminated juice samples from that study included organic grape juice from 365 Organic and Trader Joe’s.
In the wake of their findings, the Empire State Consumer Project has partnered with the non-profit food safety and sustainability organization Food and Water Watch in a campaign to pressure the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to close a legal loophole and set a formal legal limit on the amount of arsenic allowed in juice. Currently, though the EPA regulates the amount of arsenic allowed in drinking water, there are no such legal restrictions in the U.S. that apply to fruit juice.
But with a recent Republican agricultural appropriations bill, already passed by the House but still awaiting approval from the Senate, set to to drastically slash the FDA’s budget by $87 million, the FDA might not have the resources next year to enforce such a regulation even if it were implemented.
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