Dangerous levels of arsenic in 10pc of rice

By Charles Clover, Environment Editor
Last Updated: 7:01pm BST 29/08/2007

A third of baby rice tested by the Food Standards Agency contains high
levels of arsenic, one of the worst cancer causing chemicals, a leading
expert has said.

Most stringent standard for arsenic in rice is set by the Chinese

Prof Andrew Meharg of Aberdeen University, who is conducting a major study
of arsenic in rice for the Food Standards Agency, said that around 10 per
cent of all rice on British shelves contained levels of arsenic that the
Chinese would consider damaging to health.

The EU has no standard for arsenic in food and Britain's level was set in
1959 before the cancer-causing effects of arsenic were understood. Prof
Meharg says the most stringent standard is set by the Chinese, who are big
eaters of rice.

Ironically, the most likely to be exposed to high arsenic levels, he said,
were infants, buyers of macro-biotic healthfood, people who buy rice milk
and the Bangladeshi community, who buy a lot of rice from their home
country where water naturally contaminated with arsenic are used to
irrigate crops.

Prof Meharg said that rice from some countries had arsenic levels five
times higher than others, so concerned consumers could easily reduce their

Rice from the United States, France, Italy and Bangladesh had the highest
levels of inorganic arsenic. About 30 per cent of American long grain rice
samples tested contain levels above the Chinese standard.

The highest levels of arsenic in the world had just been found in French
rice, he said. Rice from India and Egypt had the lowest levels, with
basmati rice some of the safest.

Prof Meharg said a recent Food Standards Agency study of baby rice had
found that out of 13 samples, four exceeded the Chinese standard of 0.15
parts per million.

Prof Meharg told a conference organised by the Royal Geographical Society:
"The majority of babyfood has relatively high levels of arsenic - the top
end of the range. This is potentially harmful because they have small
bodies and so it is a large proportion of rice - rice pudding, rice
crackers and powdered rice."

He said that brown rice, favoured by macro-biotic, healthfood fans, had
even higher levels of arsenic. Bran from the United States used as a food
supplement had levels approaching Britain's food standard of one part per
million, set in 1959.

"That is incredibly high," he added.

People who have given up dairy products and taken up rice milk were also
at risk, he said. Some rice milk contains arsenic at levels which exceed
the standards set for drinking water of 10 parts per billion, however
since milk is classified as a food this was not regarded as harmful.

The Food Standards Agency says the level of arsenic found in rice is not a
risk to health in Britain, where people eat relatively little rice, and
simply advises people to eat a balanced diet. It measures risk differently
to Prof Meharg, across total food consumption.

A spokesman described Prof Meharg's way of pointing out the risk of rice
foodstuffs as "not particularly helpful."

Arsenic contamination of imported rice represents the tip of the iceberg
of a global problem of arsenic in water supplies affecting more than 70
countries and 137 million people.

Bangladesh is the worst country affected where hundreds of thousands of
people are likely to die from arsenic causing fatal cancers of the lung,
bladder and skin.

Prof Allan Smith, an adviser to the World Health Organisation, said
arsenic posed health risks "exceeding every other potential water

One in ten people exposed long term to more than 500 micrograms of arsenic
per litre would die of cancer.

Arsenic has been found in water in the North of England, the Midlands and
mid-Wales but tests and treatment by water companies mean that public
supplies are safe to drink, according to experts.

Prof Smith advised people with private water supplies to ensure that they
were tested.