What is Arsenic?
Arsenic is a heavy metal found in the environment (water, soil, air) which readily dissolves in water. It occurs in two forms — organic (such as in seafood) and inorganic (often from water). The inorganic type is much more harmful, although in high doses the organic arsenic can also cause harm. Prolonged exposure to high levels of arsenic has been connected to the development of certain cancers (skin, bladder, kidney, lung), brain development disorders, infertility, miscarriages, diabetes and heart disease. Arsenic is also found in cigarette smoke.
Rice absorbs high levels of arsenic from water and soil because of the unique way rice is cultivated in water flooded paddies. Arsenic is also found in high levels in pesticides, animal feeds and fertilizers, which increases soil contamination of arsenic on which rice is grown.
Many types of fruits and vegetables also contain arsenic but at lower levels. Fruit juices (especially apple and grape juices) were found to contain higher levels of arsenic. Brown rice has much higher levels of arsenic than white rice. There was no significant difference between organic rice and non-organic rice.
Children absorb higher levels or rice because their body size is much smaller, which puts them at higher risk from prolonged exposure.
What is a Safe Level?
There is no safe level. The FDA recommends limiting the amount of arsenic in babies’ rice products (rice cereals, rice pasta and cookies, rice milk) to less than 100ppm (parts per million). But most of the rice grains that were tested had much higher levels and most of the rice products for babies had levels up to 1.5 to six times higher (brown rice products higher than white).
How Much Rice Can Babies Take?
This is a very difficult question to answer in a country like Vietnam where rice is the staple food. Small babies, children and pregnant women are at higher risk and should be more careful to limit the amount of rice they eat.
Here are a few FDA recommendations that will help limit your child exposure to arsenic:
— Avoid giving rice milk to your child. There are many other alternatives, if you choose not to give regular milk or if your child is allergic to cow’s milk
— Avoid rice cookies, pasta and foods containing brown rice syrup.
— Avoid brown rice.
— Infants should consume only one serving of rice cereals a day. (One serving = 1.5 cups of prepared cereals).
— Children should eat up to 1.5 servings of rice a week. (1 serving = half a cup of cooked rice)
— Choose basmati or jasmine rice. (they contain less arsenic than other rice types)
— Use other grains such as oatmeal, barley, bulgur wheat, buckwheat and quinoa.
— Avoid fruit juice (especially apple and grape). Give your child whole fruit to eat and water.
— Wash vegetables and fruit thoroughly. It will reduce arsenic residue (and other toxic chemicals).
Dr. Jonathan Halevy is a senior pediatrician at the Family Medical Practice in Ho Chi Minh City. For more info click on vietnammedicalpractice.com