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There’s been a lot of talk about apple juice lately as Consumer Reports/Dr. Oz both have done an expose’ on the arsenic (and lead!) levels found in samples of bottled or boxed apple (and grape) juices.

Here’s the lowdown:

– Arsenic is a naturally occurring element.  It is abundant in such parts as New England, the Midwest, and the Southwest.

– Arsenic has been used as a poison since ancient times.  A fatal poisoning would require a single dose of inorganic arsenic about the weight of a postage stamp. 

– There are two types of arsenic: organic and inorganic.

– While organic arsenic is generally thought to be non- toxic to humans (for example fish contains a form of organic arsenic, arsenobetaine), concerns have been raised about other types of organic arsenic used in agricultural products.  In 2006, the EPA took steps to ban the use of herbicides containing organic arsenic because of their potential to turn into inorganic in soil  and could contaminate drinking water.  There is also organic arsenic in animal feeds, such as an additive called Roxarsone.  In 2001 the FDA worked to suspended Roxarsone as a poultry-feed additive since there was the potential for it to convert to inorganic arsenic in the bird, contaminating the meat.

-Inorganic arsenic is the most harmful.  It is a known carcinogen that can cause bladder, lung, and skin cancer, and can increase the risks of cardiovascular disease, immunodeficiencies, and Type 2 diabetes .  It is commonly used for pesticides (1.6 million TONS of arsenic has been used in agriculture since 1910, half of that having been used since the mid 1960’s).  The use of lead-arsenate was banned in the 1980’s, but residues in soil can still contaminate crops and groundwater.

– Arsenic was also used in the pressure treated lumber, but has been banned since 2003 for use on playgrounds and decks (and most residential use).  However, this wood can contribute to groundwater and air contamination when it is recycled for mulch or burned.

– The FDA has set acceptable levels of arsenic for bottled and public water at 10 parts per billion (ppb).  There are no Federal Guidelines for arsenic in juices and/or most foods.

-The Consumer Reports study found that roughly 10% of the juices they tested had total arsenic levels above the limits for drinking water, most of which was inorganic.  Find your juice here

– People with private wells are at a much greater risk  than those on public water, since the owner is responsible for testing  and treating their own water supply.

-Inorganic arsenic has been detected in other foods such as chicken, rice, and even baby food, sometimes in higher levels than found in juice.  This suggests that overall exposure to arsenic in our diets must be reduced (as arsenic is a bioaccumulative element).

– There is mounting evidence that chronic exposure to arsenic (even at levels below drinking water standards) can result in serious health concerns.  Exposure over time could increase the risk of cancers, high blood pressure, diabetes, and reproductive problems.  Signs of chronic low- level arsenic exposure can be mistaken for other ailments, such as chronic fatigue syndrome.

– The risks to children and developing fetuses is especially concerning.  Emerging research shows that when arsenic exposure occurs in the womb or in early childhood, it not only increases cancer risks later in life but also can cause lasting harm to children’s developing brains and endocrine and immune systems, leading to other diseases, too.

– A study done on a community in Chile, where arsenic levels peaked at 1000ppb in the drinking water, showed that children born during this 12 year time period who had probable exposure in the womb and early childhood had a lung-cancer death rate six times higher than those in their age group elsewhere in Chile. Their rate of death in their 30s and 40s from another form of lung disease was almost 50 times higher than for people without that arsenic exposure.

What you can do:

Limit your juice consumption:  Apple juice has few natural nutrients, lots of calories and, in some cases, more sugar than soda has (AP).

Buy Organic:  The Consumer Reports article says that buying  certified organic chicken makes sense because organic standards don’t allow the use of chicken feed containing arsenic. But for juice and other foods, it’s not so certain. Organic standards prohibit the use of synthetic fertilizers and most pesticides, but organic juices still may contain arsenic if they’re made from fruit grown in soil where arsenical insecticides were used.  And  remember the Dirty Dozen– buying organic is good for you and it encourages the discontinuation of chemical farming.

Make your own baby food: It can be fun, cheaper, and it’s really not that hard.

Limit or eliminate your own use of pesticides: Especially if you have well water.  Green lawns are pretty, but having children with cancer is not.

Get your water tested: If your home or a home you’re considering buying isn’t on a public water system, have the home’s water tested for arsenic and lead. To find a certified lab, contact your local health department or call the federal Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791. You can get information for your public-water systemfrom the EPA.

Insist that the government change its standards: Consumers Union believes that the EPA should impose stricter drinking-water standards for arsenic and recommends a standard of 3 parts per billion of arsenic, and 5 parts per billion of lead, for juice drinks.  Officials should also ban arsenic in pesticides, animal-feed additives, and fertilizers.  Send an email to the Commissioner here.

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