What Is Arsenic And What Is It Doing In My Gluten-Free Rice?

Arsenic is a flavorless, odorless mineral which occurs naturally in the earth’s crust and is found is soil, water and bedrock. Arsenic is released to the environment from sources such as volcanoes and erosion from mineral deposits.

But arsenic can also be released to the environment through man-made activities such as burning oil, coal, gasoline, and wood. It is also released when metals and chemicals are manufactured, when some pesticides are used, and in treated wood when these materials are discarded.

How Did Arsenic Get in My Gluten-Free Rice?

For many years, we were told that the way to gain the greatest yields from our crops was to apply pesticides to whatever we were growing. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that whatever was applied to the plants and soil would seep into the water and would eventually cause issues for so many of us.

For many years, cotton was grown conventionally using arsenic-based chemicals to kill boll weevils and to remove plants’ leaves before harvest. Much of this land is now being used as rice fields.

When rice was first grown in these soils where cotton was once grown, the crop often failed. This was due to an arsenic-induced disease known as straighthead. So then they bred straighthead-resistant rice varieties that could withstand the arsenic. But the downside to this is that the newly bred rice is more likely to accumulate arsenic in the grains of rice as it is grown.

Arsenic Accumulates in Rice

Due to the face that rice is the only plant that is usually grown in flooded conditions, and also because rice plants are able to soak up arsenic from the water, the arsenic compounds can easily accumulate in the rice grains, according to said Andrew Meharg, professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and co-author of the book Arsenic & Rice.

Should I Still Eat Rice?

A study led by Toxicologist Christopher States from the University of Louisville in Kentucky done last year found that people who eat more rice have more arsenic in their bodies. But States points out, however, that the arsenic consumed in half a cup of rice “is not considered a hazardous level for an adult exposure.” But just how much rice you’d need to consume for it to affect your health is unknown.

For further reading please see my post, “Arsenic in Rice – Another Day in the Life for This Gluten-Free Girl”.

Update: 4/22/13

Just came across an interesting post and the crazy part is it was from 2005. The article is titled, “Soil Chemists Plant Ferns to Soak Up Backyard Poisons“. It shows that poisons such as arsenic can be soaked up and removed from the soil by planting ferns. The ferns are able to absorb arsenic through their roots and store it in their leaves, which can then be cut off. Specifically the edenfern is beneficial for this purpose because it is able to absorb 200 times as much arsenic then other plants. I say let the edenfern planting begin!! Why wasn’t this known eight years ago and why haven’t rice farmers been using this natural method to clean up their fields?

Image Credits: Farmer in a Rice Field
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