Cumberland Times-News

November 24, 2013

Diet alone can cause ‘significant’ exposure to arsenic

Research shows brown rice, fish and brussels sprouts can have high levels of chemical element

Matthew Bieniek
Cumberland Times-News

— CUMBERLAND — People should consider taking steps to limit the arsenic that gets into their bodies through the food they consume, a Dartmouth College professor says.

The new study on arsenic levels in the human body shows that “diet alone can be a significant source of ar-senic exposure,” according to a press release from Dartmouth.

“Individual choices can go a long, long way to reducing exposure — but people need to first know about the problem. Scientists, journalists and government can all help to get the word out about water and diet as sources of arsenic exposure,” said Professor Kathryn Cottingham, who was the study’s lead author.

People can protect themselves from arsenic exposure from food and water by eating a healthy, varied diet and testing private wells for arsenic levels. Cutting down on drinking alcohol may also protect you from added arsenic exposure, said Cottingham.

“Our study confirms previous work showing that arsenic biomarkers tend to be elevated in individuals who consume more alcoholic beverages, including both beer and wine. This suggests that one way to reduce exposure is to consume fewer of these beverages,” Cottingham said.

The study is important because it’s the first to isolate diet alone as a significant source of arsenic exposure, according to a press release from Dartmouth College. Arsenic exposure can cause health problems, including cancer, vascular diseases and low birth weight. Toenail clippings are a good indicator of arsenic concentrations and participants on the study answered questions about their dietary and drinking habits. Household water is usually pinpointed as the major source of arsenic intake by people.

Some foods that tend to have high arsenic levels include brown rice, dark-fleshed fish, like tuna steaks, mackerel, salmon, sardines, bluefish and swordfish and brussels sprouts. Few people in the study consumed much rice, so rice consumption was not a factor in the study.

“The findings support recent studies that show high concentrations of arsenic in brussels sprouts and related vegetables because arsenic binds to the sulfur-containing compounds that give them their characteristic odors,” according to a press release from Dartmouth.

While individuals can help protect themselves, there’s also a role for government, Cottingham said.

Federal and state governments can help by preventing arsenic from getting into the food supply, by regulating arsenic levels in foods known to be high in arsenic, lowering the allowed arsenic levels in drinking water and continuing to fund research, Cottingham said. More research is needed to nail down the health risks of dietary exposure, she added.

Moves to ban some arsenic-containing pesticides, herbicides and compounds used in poultry farming is a positive move, the professor said. “Governments may also want to look carefully at the increasing use of high-arsenic items such as seaweed and fish as feedstocks for growing beef and chicken,” Cottingham said.

The FDA already limits inorganic arsenic in apple juice, and that could be expanded to cover rice, for instance, Cottingham said.

Cottingham said there were some surprises in the results fo the study of 852 New Hampshire residents.

“When we began this study, we thought that the relative importance of exposure to arsenic via food might depend on whether individuals were highly exposed to arsenic via their drinking water source. I was surprised to see how robust the associations with food were, regardless of water exposure, for nearly all foods. This finding suggests to me that we may all be exposed to arsenic via food, and that perhaps there are ways to reduce exposure by making alternative dietary choices,” Cottingham explained.

Cottingham also addressed arsenic in water in her comments to the Times-News because, “that is an issue about which people cannot be reminded too often.” People need to have their wells tested, Cottingham said.

“As in previous studies, we show high concentrations of arsenic in drinking water are strongly associated with elevated arsenic concentrations in toenail clippings. For individuals on municipal water sources, there are state and federal guidelines regulating the maximum concentrations of arsenic in water... . However, there are no such regulations for private drinking water wells, and many states do not even mandate routine testing of these wells.  As such, we strongly recommend that all homeowners with private wells test their water for arsenic and other contaminants regularly, and to take appropriate action if their well tests high,” Cottingham said.

Dark meat fish consumption’s link to arsenic was also stronger than many people would have thought and may require “closer attention to the forms of arsenic found in the different species of fish in this group,” Cottingham said. While some arsenic in dark fish can pass through the body without being metabolized, not all of it can.

Cottingham limits her own intake of high arsenic foods like brown rice and reads labels carefully for possible high-arsenic ingredients. Cottingham’s replies to questions from the Times-News were via email.

The study was published in Nutrition Journal.

Matthew Bieniek can be contacted at