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Pseudoscience In The Land of Oz

Dr. Ox in the hot seat; Experts refute arsenic test

Dr. Oz has made some outlandish claims once again. This time, he has gone ahead and tested children’s apple juice products for levels of arsenic, concluding that the levels found within are unsafe.

Although the FDA has sent not one but 2 letters to the show urging him not to present the results, as the FDA has found them to be inaccurate and misleading, Dr. Oz has retained his position, more than willing to stick up for pseudoscience.

In a statement contradicting Oz the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said, quite clearly,

…As we have previously advised you, the results from total arsenic tests CANNOT be used to determine whether a food is unsafe because of its arsenic content. We have explained to you that arsenic occurs naturally in many foods in both inorganic and organic forms and that only the inorganic forms of arsenic are toxic, depending on the amount.

Dr. Oz’s tests came up with total arsenic levels of up to 16 parts per billion, but is this something to fear? Is it just a manufactured health scare? Let’s look at the science of arsenic.

The Science

The main point of the FDA’s rebuttal to Dr. Oz is that his testing did not distinguish “organic” arsenic levels from total arsenic levels. “Organic” arsenic is a compound of arsenic, carbon, and possibly some other elements.

This distinction is important because organic forms of arsenic are essentially harmless. Because Dr. Oz failed to run the test to determine what part of the results represented this organic arsenic, he has no right to come out and say that the juice is dangerous.

Said a report by the National Institutes of Health:

It is important to discern how much of the total arsenic measurement is due to the intake of inorganic arsenic because organic arsenicals, mostly found in seafood, is generally considered to be of little toxicology significance.

This is not news to the FDA. They have been aware of levels of arsenic in food and beverage products for a long time, and do the necessary due diligence when testing. In the letter written to the Dr. Oz show the FDA states:

The FDA typically tests juice samples for total arsenic first, because this test is rapid, accurate and cost effective. When total arsenic testing shows that a fruit juice sample has total arsenic in an amount greater than 23 parts per billion (ppb), we re-test the sample for its inorganic arsenic content. The vast majority of samples we have tested for total arsenic have less than 23 ppb. We consider the test results for inorganic arsenic on a case-by-case basis and take regulatory action as appropriate.

Because inorganic arsenic is what we have to worry about, the FDA regularly tests for such compounds. The problem with Dr. Oz’s tests is that there was no distinction made between organic/inorganic. He may in fact be creating a panic about organic arsenic levels that are harmless. But we can not be sure, because he did not do the tests with the necessary scientific rigor or follow-through.

Dr. Oz and his testing has made no distinction between organic arsenic (harmless) and inorganic arsenic (toxic at certain levels). Therefore Dr. Oz can not be certain, and is not justified in saying so, that the levels of total arsenic that he found actually pose any threat.

Real Dangers

It is true that arsenic is a poison, but so is everything at the right levels. Sugar can become toxic, as can water. Interestingly, depending on the amount ingested, arsenic can be beneficial (animal studies suggest that low levels of arsenic in the diet are essential).

That being said, inorganic arsenic can be a real problem at toxic levels. It has many detrimental effects on your health, especially on children. However, these effects are either caused by routine, chronic exposure to dangerous levels of inorganic arsenic, or acute massive doses (a child died after exposure to 3.4 grams).

Thankfully, EPA has set the total arsenic standard for drinking water at .010 parts per million (10 parts per billion, remember that number) to protect consumers served by public water systems from the effects of long-term, chronic exposure to arsenic.

His Data

If you take the two average levels of total arsenic that Dr. Oz found in both of his tests, they are 5.17 parts per billion and 8.71 parts per billion, respectively. You have more arsenic in your drinking water than Dr. Oz found in apple juice! These levels are both below the acceptable level of arsenic in your water (10 ppb).

Total Arsenic Level, ppb
Test 1 Test 2
2.4 12
4.4 5.1
1.5 7.7
4.8 8.6
0 6.2
11 6.4
1.8 7.7
2.2 16
6.2 8.7125 ppb
7.1  6.9606 ppb
5.16875 ppb

You have been drinking your water for decades (plus or minus) and you have been fine, no arsenic poisoning for you. So, if you can safely drink water with more arsenic in it than was found in the apple juice, Dr. Oz’s findings are meaningless, and should be reported as such.

The FDA agrees:

There is no evidence of any public health risk from drinking these juices.

[You can find a discussion of the newest claims by the Consumerist about arsenic in apple juice here.]


The testing that Dr. Oz show had done showed that there were certain total levels of arsenic in apple juice products. However, Dr. Oz was wrong to make this a health scare for two reasons:

  1. His testing did not account for organic vs. inorganic levels of arsenic. Because the inorganic type is toxic and the other is not, Dr. Oz has no basis to conclude that the levels that he found were dangerous. It may well be that the levels he found were all from harmless organic arsenic. We will never know because he did not do the necessary scientific due diligence.
  2. Even if the results that he found were all from the toxic inorganic type of arsenic, the levels that he found were, on average, below that which is found even in your drinking water. Basically, you already ingest more arsenic in your water than he found in the juice. Do you have arsenic poisoning?

The FDA again sums it up pretty well:

The FDA believes that it would be irresponsible and misleading for The Dr. Oz Show to suggest that apple juice contains unsafe amounts of arsenic based solely on tests for total arsenic.

And that’s exactly what he has done. He has stood behind misleading data and irresponsibly manufactured a health scare that he did not do his homework on. He again proves himself a shoddy public health communicator and a purveyor of pseudoscience.

For further reading: Questions & Answers: Apple Juice and Arsenic