In 1944, director Frank Capra released his dark comedy adaptation of Joseph Kesselring’s play, Arsenic and Old Lace. Starring Cary Grant and Raymond Massey, the film told the story of a family in which two family matriarchs take it upon themselves to poison lonely and aged men with apparently nothing to live for. Seeing their actions as a mercy, the old ladies dose a glass of elderberry wine with a combination of strychnine, cyanide, and arsenic, ultimately enlisting a third family member to dispose of the bodies in the cellar. Debuting at the end of a very dark period in human history, the Warner Bros movie was well received, providing as it did a strong dose of humor in extraordinarily challenging times.
But why arsenic? Perhaps because of its long pedigree as a poison of choice. In Victorian England, for example, the element was relatively ubiquitous and found in everything from candles and wallpaper, to fabrics and artificial flower wreaths with which ‘ladies of high society’ would adorn their hair. It was also regarded as the preeminent murder weapon for those wishing to rid themselves of a troublesome relative: with commonly occurring symptoms such as vomiting and abdominal pain and death ensuing hours after contact, the poisoner could not easily be identified. So with that in mind, how is it true that arsenic is still to be found within the contemporary food chain? We took a look back at our published articles on the topic and thought it might be time for an update. Let’s return initially to the question of arsenic in baby food.
In August 2017, we published an article entitled ‘Is Arsenic in Rice Poisoning Your Baby. Natural Toxins!’ in which we showed how planting rice crops in fields that once grew cotton results in detectable levels of arsenic within the food. This was because lead arsenate and calcium arsenate were liberally applied to cotton crops during the early twentieth century as a way of maximizing yield. Re-purposing this land for food crops now means that the heavy metal dormant in the soil makes its way into rice and, of especial concern, into infant formula which uses the grain as a significant ingredient. For more on this issue, please review our August 2017 article here.
And rice isn’t the only foodstuff to harbor this toxin. Indeed, in our discussion of seaweed as the next big party snack, we noted the 2018 recall of some brands of the marine vegetable by authorities in Australia due to elevated levels of arsenic. Especially notable was The Whole Foodies Sea Vegetables seaweed made by Unique Health Products Pty Ltd.(1) The company specializes in natural, organic, eco-friendly, and fair trade consumables and the arsenic-laden seaweed certainly conforms to all criteria, except perhaps the fair trade designation. And the point of this snarky aside is that not all products stemming from ‘nature’ are necessarily health-promoting. As we have said in the past, digitalis is a naturally occurring poison, as are a clutch of mushrooms – from the prosaically named ‘Destroying Angel’ (a modest little white mushroom easily mistaken for a meadow mushroom) and the fungus thought to have poisoned Roman Emperor Claudius in 54 AD, the aptly named ‘Death Cap.’ Takeaway message: nature is not necessarily 100% beneficent. If you’re a fan of seaweed snacks and need to know more, take a moment to read our article here.
Well, no, that’s not exactly true. Although as we said last month in our article, ‘The Euphoric Alchemy of Botanical Beverages’ many ‘herbals and botanicals are considered to be dietary supplements and, as such, are not regulated in the same way products by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as food.’(2) And if you find that hard to believe, a Food Dive brief published in April this year reported on a recent analysis of 130 brands of bottled water by watchdog, Consumer Reports. Of the sample group no fewer than 11 ‘contained detectable arsenic levels, including six with 3 parts per billion or more.’(3) If that doesn’t sound significant, we should remember that although the federal cutoff point is actually 10ppb, drinking a product containing 3ppb over a protracted period of time will have health impacts in the long term. Of the six brands found to have elevated arsenic levels one, Keurig Dr Pepper’s Peñafiel was subjected to additional tests by the company itself. The finding? Keurig Dr Pepper put the parts per billion of its own product at seventeen (17) and yet did not issue a recall.
But it is not true to say that the FDA is not monitoring the general arsenic situation in foods. For more than two decades the agency has been conducting routine testing on grocery items such as apple juice to monitor the fluctuating levels of the heavy metal in finished products. You’ll recall the issue with rice fields? The same has historically been true of apple orchards in areas proximal to former cotton growing areas. As we noted in our above mentioned article ‘Is Arsenic in Rice Poisoning Your Baby. Natural Toxins!’ orchards were also traditionally treated with lead arsenate to protect crops: ‘[T]he early twentieth century saw growers liberally applying arsenic-based compounds such as lead arsenate and calcium arsenate to their […] fruit orchards. In fact, in 1935, an FDA-sponsored radio program recast the children’s rhyme “A is for Apple’ to read ‘A is for Arsenate/Lead if you please/Protector of Apples/Against Archenemies.”’(4) And why is apple juice singled out by the government for special consideration? It’s a case of greatest risk. Per the FDA’s analysis: ‘Apple juice is a greater potential source of dietary inorganic arsenic exposure to children than to adults, because children’s dietary patterns are often less varied than those of adults, and they consume more apple juice relative to their body weight than do adults.’(5)
Alongside the ‘Total Diet Study’ (TDS) and the ‘Toxic Elements in Food, Foodware, and Radionuclides in Food Program’ (TEP) which have been gathering data for years, the FDA has increased surveillance of fruit juices and concentrates imported from international vendors. Countries such as China and Argentina have been added to the list of producers subject to increased detention of goods for analysis of arsenic levels, and domestic vendors from areas of ‘naturally high levels of arsenic in soil or water, and atmospheric deposition from industrial activities’ are equally subject to enhanced scrutiny.(6) So what is the process for analyzing the samples? It may not be as straight forward as you might imagine. Firstly, there are two forms of arsenic: organic and inorganic which together make up what’s termed ‘total arsenic.’ Using Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (ICPMS), a process that allows for low detection limits along with the ability to perform isotopic analysis, with High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC), the specific analysis of chemical species within a sample, the FDA measures contamination levels at a very low baseline in order to determine which samples require secondary speciation analysis.
Of course all of this is well and good, assuming that the products with the most elevated levels of contamination are selected for analysis. But is there anything that the average consumer can do as a secondary safeguard? According to the FDA, exposure to arsenic from food sources basically centers on consumer education. In a perhaps weaker than expected set of guidelines, the agency recommends that those drinking well water perform annual testing to ensure a level of 10 parts per billion or lower. Learning about dietary juice recommendations for children over the age of one year is also important, as the safe consumption limit is set surprisingly low. Contrary to the marketing materials found on most fruit juice containers, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) the permissible limit for children ages 7 to 18 is just 8oz per day, a modest intake that most parents may not anticipate. And what of rice in infant formula and rice cereals? Again, the FDA’s most cogent advice is limitation of exposure. Feeding a ‘varied, well-balanced diet […] for food safety [… will] promote the intake of important nutrients, as well as minimize potential adverse consequences from consuming an excess of any one food.’(7) Or, in other words, just be sure not to ingest arsenic in excess…
If all of this has your head spinning (disorientation can, after all, be a symptom of heavy metal toxicity…) there is one final point with which we’d like to conclude. As mentioned above, arsenic exists in two forms – organic and inorganic – and mutability is an issue. Take, for instance, Roxasone – a drug sold by Alpharma LLC, a subsidiary of pharma giant Pfizer Inc. A previously approved drug for livestock, especially poultry, Roxasone contains organic arsenic which converts to the inorganic form within the body. In the livers and tissues of chickens, for example, detectable levels of inorganic arsenic passed from the meat to the consumer, making poultry another significant vector of contamination. According to an FDA article, Zoetis Inc which took ownership of the drug from Pfizer suspended sales before withdrawing the product completely along with arsanilic acid and carbarsone, two other treatments that contained the toxin.(8) At this time, no other arsenic-based drugs are on the market for the management of disease in commercial poultry operations since the last remaining treatment, Histostat, was withdrawn in 2016. But for more on the issue of arsenical drugs and their alternatives for use in livestock husbandry, we recommend a perusal of these linked FDA resources.
Heavy metal toxicity is a matter of grave concern to the health of the general public. And while there are measures we can take as individuals to limit our exposure to such contaminants, it is an area in which we would welcome stronger prevention and protection from entities such as the FDA. Yes, we can limit our personal consumption of apple juice but we believe that additional solutions should be sought in terms of contamination control. Since arsenic is naturally occurring in many geographical zones, and given that these areas are readily identifiable, it might behoove authorities to investigate the possibilities for land and soil remediation. Just as state and local authorities, alongside NGOs and other interested parties, can instigate remediation of brown field sites, for instance, so the polluted cotton fields that are now growing rice ought to be cleaned up, thereby preserving not only the health of our citizens, strengthening our domestic production of the basic staple, but also decreasing our reliance on international imports. And any measure that buttresses our food security and independence when it comes to trade can, arguably, only be a good thing.
Or do you disagree? As always, we’d love to know your thoughts!