Sometimes, the best way to avoid toxic contaminants in your food is just to eat less of the worst offenders.
Whether it’s the legacy of toxic arsenic-based pesticides used on apple orchards and cotton fields or the naturally occurring arsenic in irrigation water and soil, this heavy metal has become pervasive in our diets. And a new study from Dartmouth University researchers has concluded that foods that contain arsenic could easily be your primary exposure sources for this harmful metal.
After comparing arsenic levels found in about 850 people’s toenails (over time, arsenic concentrates in the keratin your body uses to create nails) with food questionnaires, Dartmouth researchers concluded that “diet can be an important contributor to total arsenic exposure in U.S. populations, regardless of arsenic concentrations in drinking water.” Although the Environmental Protection Agency has set limits for arsenic in municipal water supplies, the metal isn’t regulated in private wells used for drinking and irrigation. and its presence has always been an issue for people who survive off well water.
“After we accounted for exposures via water, we still saw high levels of exposure from food,” says lead author Kathryn Cottingham, PhD, professor of biological sciences at Dartmouth. However, she adds, “We can’t say much about the potential for harm because we don’t know the health risks yet for the levels we found.”
Although it’s fatal at high doses, the low levels of arsenic in food don’t cause immediate health problems for the average person, but with chronic exposures, their dangers can be serious. Long-term exposure to the metal is known to cause lung, kidney, skin, and bladder cancers, and it interferes with estrogen and testosterone, as well as with the hormones that regulate your metabolism and immune system. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been trying to decide how to cope with foods that contain arsenic ever since independent tests by Consumer Reports magazine and others revealed high levels of arsenic in rice, apple juice, and other processed foods. The agency has never set a limit on how much of the metal can be allowed in food.
“My advice,” says Cottingham, “if there are foods that are high in arsenic, just don’t eat them all the time.”
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