Health & wellness

Do you need to worry about arsenic in rice?

Arsenic appears on the verge of becoming the worrisome chemical du jour with a report last week finding elevated levels in apple juice and now a new paper this week warning about arsenic in rice. A study from Dartmouth measured the concentration of arsenic in the urine of 229 pregnant women and found that those who had eaten about 1/2 cup of cooked rice each day over the past two days were more likely to have elevated levels than those who hadn’t eaten rice.

Rice, like apple juice, is one of those foods more likely to contain arsenic; rice plants readily absorb arsenic from the surrounding soil and rocks, according to study author Margaret Karagas, professor of community and family medicine at Dartmouth Medical School. The inorganic kind -- that’s found along with the organic kind in many foods -- has been associated with possible harm to fetuses, including low birth weight, immune system problems, and an increased risk of lung cancer later in life. But, Karagas stressed, more research is needed to determine whether low levels of arsenic exposure pose risks to unborn babies.

While arsenic is tightly controlled in public drinking water, it can be prevalent in private wells used to supply water to some homes in the New England area, and the women in this study all resided in New Hampshire and received their water from private wells known to contain elevated levels of arsenic.

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Karagas and her colleagues found that urinary arsenic concentrations for the study participants who ate rice over the previous two days averaged 5.27 micrograms per liter compared with 3.38 micrograms per liter for those who hadn’t eaten any rice, according to the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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This finding doesn’t mean pregnant women should avoid eating rice, Karagas emphasized, but those who do get their water from private wells should have them monitored regularly for levels of arsenic.

She’d also like to see the government step up and start regulating arsenic in food as it now does in drinking water. “Setting such limits,” she and her colleagues wrote in the study, “would protect consumers from unknowingly purchasing rice or rice products with high levels of arsenic.”

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.