Governments agree to stem cancer-causing arsenic in rice: UN

by Jonathan Fowler

Governments have agreed the first international standards limiting cancer-causing arsenic pollution in rice, a key move to protect consumers of what is a staple food for billions, the UN said Thursday.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission, the top global decision-making body for food , issued the decision at its ongoing annual meeting in Geneva.

"Arsenic is an environmental contaminant. It occurs naturally and is taken up by plants from the water and soil when they're growing, in particular rice," said World Health Organization food safety coordinator Angelika Tritscher.

The commission set a maximum of 0.02 milligrammes of arsenic per kilo of polished race—the product that is traded and consumed.

"The main driver for Codex standards is trade. But when we talk about safety standards, the main purpose is clearly to protect the health of consumers," said Tritscher.

Arsenic occurs in the Earth's crust. Some of the heaviest concentrations are in Asia, where rice is a mainstay.

A key problem is paddy fields irrigated with water pumped from shallow wells containing arsenic-rich sediments.

Heavy rice consumption has been found to compound the impact of arsenic in drinking water.

"Since rice is a very important stable food for many countries and many regions of the world, a significant part of the global population is affected," Tritscher said.

Bangladesh has been a top concern, with tens of millions of rural dwellers exposed via wells drilled in the 1970s in "access-to-water" programmes.

Parts of Cambodia, China, India and Vietnam have also been affected.

Long-term exposure can cause cancer and skin lesions, Tritscher said. It is also linked to heart disease, diabetes and damage to the nervous system and brain.

Arsenic rarely grabs headlines in the same way as other food crises.

"It's not like you have an immediate, acute effect like you have with a salmonella outbreak," said Tritscher.

No safe exposure level

The 186-nation Codex commission is run by the WHO and fellow UN agency the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Its standards must be set down into national laws to take effect.

"We all expect our food to be safe and of good quality. We don't expect to get sick from our food," said senior FAO officer Tom Heilandt.

The decision followed years of research which fed into a policy-making process helmed by China and Japan.

"One of the core principles of Codex standards is that they are science-based," Tritscher said.

"The outcome of the assessments was that you cannot define a safe exposure level. The consequence is that you have to try to reduce exposure as much as possible," she added.

"We operate on the 'alara' principle—as low as reasonably achievable—which balances how low you can go without having to discard the majority of the supply."

The commission also set out ways to reduce .

They include growing crops in raised beds instead of flooded fields, drying out paddies before harvest, and regular checks on water supplies.

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Experts voice concerns over arsenic in rice

Jul 15, 2014

Inorganic arsenic in rice and rice-based foods poses health concerns in infants and young children, and steps should be taken to minimize exposure, according to a commentary in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology an ...

Low doses of arsenic cause cancer in male mice

Jul 08, 2014

Mice exposed to low doses of arsenic in drinking water, similar to what some people might consume, developed lung cancer, researchers at the National Institutes of Health have found.

Denmark warns against rice for children

May 15, 2013

Denmark's Veterinary and Food Administration said Wednesday that parents should stop giving their children rice cakes and rice milk, saying the products contained unacceptable levels of inorganic arsenic.

Recommended for you

Can YouTube save your life?

22 hours ago

Only a handful of CPR and basic life support (BLS) videos available on YouTube provide instructions which are consistent with recent health guidelines, according to a new study published in Emergency Medicine Australasia, the jo ...

Doctors frequently experience ethical dilemmas

23 hours ago

(HealthDay)—For physicians trying to balance various financial and time pressures, ethical dilemmas are common, according to an article published Aug. 7 in Medical Economics.

AMGA: Physician turnover still high in 2013

23 hours ago

(HealthDay)—For the second year running, physician turnover remains at the highest rate since 2005, according to a report published by the American Medical Group Association (AMGA).

Obese or overweight teens more likely to become smokers

Aug 29, 2014

A study examining whether overweight or obese teens are at higher risk for substance abuse finds both good and bad news: weight status has no correlation with alcohol or marijuana use but is linked to regular ...

User comments