Arsenic, the poison of choice for bygone assassinations and mid-century murder mysteries, is a metalloid (sharing properties of metals and non-metals) that is found in rock and soil, with trace amounts in some areas and heavy concentrations in others. It has been responsible for the deaths and illnesses of many through water, food, and occupational exposure. It is has even been suggested that the painters Cézanne, Monet, and Van Gogh all suffered from the deleterious effects of arsenic as it was a component of their medium.
The issue of arsenic in drinking water isn’t a new one; arsenic leaches into groundwater causing varying degrees of contamination. And just because it’s naturally seeping from natural rocks doesn’t mean it’s harmless. The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry lists 275 hazardous substances at toxic waste sites–arsenic ranks as number one, based on risks to people living around those sites.
As you may have heard, recently, celebrity health guru Dr. Mehmet Oz raised another concern beyond arsenic in our water. He claimed that not only does apple juice contain arsenic, but at levels much higher than what is deemed safe for our drinking water. To which the FDA counter-claimed with a statement that most of the arsenic in juices and other foods was of the so-called “organic” form, which the agency said was “essentially harmless.”
The Oz test results join a larger group of tests that have been conducted over the past several years. As reported on by Consumer Reports, tests by university researchers and other labs say they have detected levels of total arsenic in apple juices that were up to three to five times higher than the 10 ppb public drinking water limit set by the EPA, which is a limit that the FDA imposes for bottled water.
Aside from naturally occurring in rock formations, arsenic has had plenty of agricultural and industrial uses. For many, many years arsenic was a component in widely-applied insecticides used in orchards, vineyards and cotton fields. The use of lead arsenate insecticides was banned in the U.S. over twenty years ago, arsenic remains in the soil which can continue to contaminate fruit now grown in those orchards. Possible continuing use of arsenical insecticides in other countries, including China, which now supplies the majority of apple concentrate used in the U.S, is of concern as well.
Writer Andrea Rock takes a closer look into the arsenic debate for Consumer Reports, and does a bang-up job trying to make sense of what the threats may be in Getting the Facts Straight on Arsenic and Apple Juice.
Rock contends that: the FDA’s statement that “inorganic forms of arsenic are the harmful forms, while the organic forms of arsenic are essentially harmless” is oversimplified. The wide range of serious human health risks of inorganic arsenic exposure has been well documented, as it is the form that contaminates drinking water. But there is not sufficient evidence to describe organic arsenic as “harmless.” The educational material provided by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to educate physicians about arsenic’s health effects points out that while the type of organic arsenic found in seafood appears to have low toxicity, other varieties of organic arsenic compounds have been shown in animal studies to produce health effects similar to those caused by inorganic arsenic.
ATSDR’s Arsenic Fact Sheet states: “Almost nothing is known regarding health effects of organic arsenic compounds in humans.”
Further, according to Rock, the FDA said in its recent statement that most arsenic found in juices is of the organic form and therefore is less of a concern. However, scientific research suggests that inorganic arsenic can be found in significant, if not dominant, portions of the total arsenic levels detected in juices:
• A 2009 study by researchers at the University of Arizona looked at total and inorganic arsenic levels in apple and grape juice. The study indicated that of the seven apple juice or cider samples tested, 65 percent or more of the total arsenic present was the inorganic form. For the four grape juice samples, approximately 55 percent or more of the arsenic found was the inorganic form. Most importantly, the amount of inorganic arsenic in several samples of these juices exceeded the 10 ppb federal standard for total arsenic allowed in drinking water.
• A 2008 FDA document states that testing of samples from three lots of pear juice concentrate, which were recalled, showed inorganic arsenic represented from approximately 52 percent to 67 percent of the total arsenic detected.
As in so many cases of common sense and scientific research not necessarily agreeing with the FDA, it’s all rather confusing. If you’re left unsure by how to proceed, read more here: Arsenic in Apple Juice: What Should I Do?