Arsenic has long been recognized as a poison and a
contaminant in drinking water, but now concerns are growing about arsenic in
foods, especially in fruit juices that are a mainstay for children.
Controversy over arsenic in apple juice made headlines as
the school year began when Mehmet Oz, M.D., host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” told
viewers that tests he’d commissioned found 10 of three dozen apple-juice
samples with total arsenic levels exceeding 10 parts per billion (ppb). There’s
no federal arsenic threshold for juice or most foods, though the limit for
bottled and public water is 10 ppb. The Food and Drug Administration, trying to
reassure consumers about the safety of apple juice, claimed that most arsenic
in juices and other foods is of the organic type that is “essentially
But an investigation by Consumer Reports shows otherwise.
Our study, including tests of apple and grape juice, a scientific analysis of
federal health data, a consumer poll, and interviews with doctors and other
experts, finds the following:
Roughly 10 percent of our juice samples, from
five brands, had total arsenic levels that exceeded federal drinking-water
standards. Most of that arsenic was inorganic arsenic, a known carcinogen.
One in four samples had lead levels higher than
the FDA’s bottled-water limit of 5 ppb. As with arsenic, no federal limit
exists for lead in juice.
Apple and grape juice constitute a significant
source of dietary exposure to arsenic, according to our analysis of federal
health data from 2003 through 2008.
Children drink a lot of juice. Thirty-five
percent of children 5 and younger drink juice in quantities exceeding
pediatricians’ recommendations, our poll of parents shows.
Mounting scientific evidence suggests that
chronic exposure to arsenic and lead even at levels below water standards can
result in serious health problems.
Inorganic arsenic has been detected at
disturbing levels in other foods, too, which suggests that more must be done to
reduce overall dietary exposure.
Our findings have prompted Consumers Union, the advocacy arm
of Consumer Reports, to urge the FDA to set arsenic and lead standards for
apple and grape juice. Our scientists believe that juice should at least meet
the 5 ppb lead limit for bottled water. They recommend an even lower arsenic
limit for juice: 3 ppb.
“People sometimes say, ‘If arsenic exposure is so bad, why
don’t you see more people sick or dying from it?’ But the many diseases likely
to be increased by exposure even at relatively low levels are so common already
that its effects are overlooked simply because no one has looked carefully for
the connection,” says Joshua Hamilton, Ph.D., a toxicologist specializing in
arsenic research and the chief academic and scientific officer at the Marine
Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass.
As our investigation found, when scientists and doctors do
look, the connections they’ve found underscore the need to protect public
health by reducing Americans’ exposure to this potent toxin.