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A new report from the Consumerist has been getting a lot of media attention. In it, they claim that, supposedly backing up the findings of Dr. Oz a few months ago, that sampled juices contained levels of arsenic that went beyond what was safe.

A Problem With Numbers

As was stated in my last post on the subject:

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.

Let’s then establish a few points before moving on:

  1. Keep in mind that the drinking water limit, 10 ppb, is set to keep drinkers safe from long-term, chronic exposure, the kind of exposure that would come from living in an area with arsenic-contaminated ground water, for example, and does not pose an immediate threat to health. The kind of dose that could do serious damage is up around 23 ppb (of inorganic arsenic).
  2. Because organic arsenic is essentially harmless and readily excreted from the body, the standards effectively regulate inorganic arsenic levels to 10 ppb. If a tested sample gets into the danger range (23 ppb total arsenic), it is re-tested for inorganic content and actions are taken accordingly.
  3. Based on a certain consumption rate and data collected by the EPA, the risk of developing cancer from inorganic arsenic is 1 in 20,000 (0.005%) per ppb (given you drink a few liters of the contaminated water everyday). Given this, you would have about a 0.05% chance of developing some kind of health condition from drinking around 3 liters of water with an inorganic arsenic content of 10 ppb per day. Being that you have a 44% chance of developing cancer in your lifetime already (for males, 38% for females), this is an acceptable level.

OK then, what we are concerned about is inorganic arsenic levels over 10 ppb. So what did the Consumerist report find?

The Report

You can look at their data sheet here, but I will summarize the results. Out of 88 samples of juice from countries around the world that make it into our markets, roughly 10% of them had total arsenic levels which exceeded 10 ppb. As we have established, this does not mean much as the danger zone is around 23 ppb. But it also means that 90% of the juices were effectively safe to drink. It does cross the drinking water standard but does not say anything for the harmful type of arsenic.

If you look at their results for inorganic arsenic levels, only 3% of the samples exceeded the limit of 10 ppb. Even then, all of the levels in this 3% were below 23 ppb, which is considered immediately harmful. Again this means that 97% of the juices had acceptably safe levels or arsenic.

This squares with what the FDA has found previously:

FDA monitoring has found that total arsenic levels in apple juice are typically low.

…[In the FDA tests] Of these 160 apple juice samples, almost 88 percent had fewer than 10 ppb total arsenic, and 95 percent had total arsenic levels below 23 ppb total arsenic.

Similarly, from the Total Diet Study program, nearly 77 percent of the 134 composite apple juice samples tested from 1991 to 2009 (including baby food and general consumption samples) had total arsenic levels below 10 ppb.  Of these 134 TDS samples, 95 percent had total arsenic levels below 23 ppb.

These results from the FDA and the Consumerist report show that although some juices do cross the boundary, the vast majority of them do not. For the ones that do, regulatory action is taken.

Also, outside reports, the FDA finds, are very often wrong about their results. Take Dr. Oz’s independent analysis:

[The] FDA tested apple juice from the same lot as a Nestle/Gerber sample reported on the Dr. Oz show to contain 36 ppb total arsenic (as measured by EMSL Analytical, Inc.), as well as six additional samples from different lots of Nestle/Gerber apple juice. These results, which are available on the FDA website, ranged from 2 to 6 ppb total arsenic.

Furthermore, the FDA’s results were corroborated by three independent laboratories, Dr. Oz’s were not. We cannot say that the Consumerist results are inaccurate for sure, but it is a possibility.

And the FDA is not simply dismissing any possible harm. As of this letter, the FDA states that “we are seriously considering setting guidance or other level for inorganic arsenic in apple juice and are collecting all relevant information to evaluate and determine an appropriate level.”

Conclusion

The EPA and FDA recognize that the goal for arsenic levels is 0 ppb. But because arsenic is a naturally occurring compound found in groundwater (which makes its way into our drinking water) and soil (which makes its way into our food), having some amount of arsenic make it into our bodies is unavoidable. This is why results showing people with arsenic in their urine is meaningless. Sure they could have consumed more juice, but they may also live in an area with a higher level of arsenic in their ground water or traditionally eat food with higher arsenic contents (seafood/shellfish).

The amounts of arsenic in apple juice and other juices that we have seen over time are not at harmful levels or significant amounts and even then the relevant regulatory bodies are taking action accordingly. I am not dismissing these results completely, as any potential harm should be addressed, but this is no time to start boycotting apple juice. Of course the FDA or EPA could set lower standards; that would be beneficial for everyone, but the levels of potential harm do not warrant it.

Risk is everywhere, and we have to manage our resources well to combat them. In simply a cost-benefit view, being that most juices are deemed safe by testing, it would be more productive to fight childhood obesity than to go after the less than ~5% of juice makers that have somewhat harmful levels of arsenic.

We definitely need to keep an eye on this, but this is not the time to panic. I’d wait until the data actually supports it.