In recent times there has been great hype around ‘arsenic’ and, in particular, arsenic exposure from the consumption of rice. I have written this blog with the aim of educating you on what arsenic is, why it may be harmful, and how we can limit our exposure to this molecular compound without completely removing nutritious food groups. So, if you want to know the facts, it’s really important you block out all distractions and read on. You see, we often hear phrases like “avoid rice, it contains arsenic” or “avoid soy” make their way into dinner table conversations without everyone understanding the facts – Chinese whispers, so to speak. These whispers gain momentum until a mass volume of people believe them and help spread them further. The issue is this misinformation gains momentum, but the people spreading it really have no understanding – they just repeat what they have heard and, eventually, the initial science and findings are taken out of context. So, next time you hear something like this, a good approach is to very diplomatically ask them to explain the original science behind the statement to you so you can understand. 99% of the time they will go off on a tangent or say they read something on google but can’t remember where.
Firstly, there are two types of arsenic – organic and inorganic.
Organic arsenic is a natural heavy metal found in the Earth’s crust. You’ve probably heard of heavy metals before when people talk about fish – the flesh of many common fish species consumed is riddled with heavy metals. Minuscule amounts of this organic arsenic metal find their way into rock, ground water, soil and air. You may have heard about the UNICEF project, which helped bring pathogen free water to areas of poverty in Bangladesh. Unfortunately UNICEF didn’t test the groundwater for arsenic contamination and only found out about the issue when a high % of people living in the area developed symptoms of arsenic toxicity. Now, 10% of this exposed population in Bangladesh are predicted to get arsenic-related cancers in future years – this project led to some serious learnings and highlights how important it is that we limit our exposure to this metal.
In addition to organic arsenic, our environment and food is exposed to inorganic arsenic that is found in common pesticides used in farming. As you can probably guess, this inorganic, man-made arsenic that is used in pesticides is far more toxic to the human body. When a person takes in too much arsenic, it is termed by the medical field as Arsenic Poisoning or Arsenicosis. Arsenic Poisoning can be acute (immediate high level exposure usually from inhalation in the smelting or glass production industry or from copious consumption of pesticides) or chronic (long term, low level exposure which is more commonly associated with arsenic exposure from ground water). The type of Arsenic Poisoning from exposure to arsenic in meat, poultry, fish or rice is ‘chronic’, so it is a build over years of exposure.
One of the things about arsenic that makes this heavy metal even worse is that when it finds it’s way into the body, it combines with other metals to strengthen them.
Some of the main sources of arsenic in food are:
Arsenic damages the body via oxidative stress which is the very process which antioxidants (the good guys) in our diet are trying to stop/reduce. When free radical, or unstable particles like arsenic, are allowed to wreak havoc in our body, they can damage DNA and Mitochondria which are both very important genetic components. Long term exposure is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, various cancers, type 2 diabetes and a decline in cognitive function among other things (3). Acute arsenic exposure/toxicity can cause diarrhea, cramping, vomiting and in severe cases tingling sensations and death.
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