Controversy over arsenic in apple juice made headlines as the school year began when Mehmet Oz, M.D., host of "The Dr. Oz Show," told viewers that tests he'd commissioned found 10 of three dozen apple-juice samples with total arsenic levels exceeding 10 parts per billion (ppb). There's no federal arsenic threshold for juice or most foods, though the limit for bottled and public water is 10 ppb. The Food and Drug Administration, trying to reassure consumers about the safety of apple juice, claimed that most arsenic in juices and other foods is of the organic type that is "essentially harmless."
But an investigation by Consumer Reports shows otherwise. Our study, including tests of apple and grape juice (download a PDF of our complete test results), a scientific analysis of federal health data, a consumer poll, and interviews with doctors and other experts, finds the following:
- Roughly 10 percent of our juice samples, from five brands, had total arsenic levels that exceeded federal drinking-water standards. Most of that arsenic was inorganic arsenic, a known carcinogen.
- One in four samples had lead levels higher than the FDA's bottled-water limit of 5 ppb. As with arsenic, no federal limit exists for lead in juice.
- Apple and grape juice constitute a significant source of dietary exposure to arsenic, according to our analysis of federal health data from 2003 through 2008.
- Children drink a lot of juice. Thirty-five percent of children 5 and younger drink juice in quantities exceeding pediatricians' recommendations, our poll of parents shows.
- Mounting scientific evidence suggests that chronic exposure to arsenic and lead even at levels below water standards can result in serious health problems.
- Inorganic arsenic has been detected at disturbing levels in other foods, too, which suggests that more must be done to reduce overall dietary exposure.
- Our findings have prompted Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, to urge the FDA to set arsenic and lead standards for apple and grape juice. Our scientists believe that juice should at least meet the 5 ppb lead limit for bottled water. They recommend an even lower arsenic limit for juice: 3 ppb.
"People sometimes say, 'If arsenic exposure is so bad, why don't you see more people sick or dying from it?' But the many diseases likely to be increased by exposure even at relatively low levels are so common already that its effects are overlooked simply because no one has looked carefully for the connection," says Joshua Hamilton, Ph.D., a toxicologist specializing in arsenic research and the chief academic and scientific officer at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass.
As our investigation found, when scientists and doctors do look, the connections they've found underscore the need to protect public health by reducing Americans' exposure to this potent toxin.
Many sources of exposure
Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that can contaminate groundwater used for drinking and irrigation in areas where it's abundant, such as parts of New England, the Midwest, and the Southwest. See the map from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) showing test results of arsenic levels in groundwater throughout the United States.
The public's exposure to arsenic extends beyond those areas because since 1910, the United States has used roughly 1.6 million tons of it for agricultural and other industrial uses. About half of that cumulative total has been used since only the mid-1960s. Lead-arsenate insecticides were widely used in cotton fields, orchards, and vineyards until their use was banned in the 1980s. But residues in the soil can still contaminate crops.
For decades, arsenic was also used in a preservative for pressure-treated lumber commonly used for decks and playground equipment. In 2003 that use was banned, (as was most residential use) but the wood can contribute to arsenic in groundwater when it's recycled as mulch.
Other sources of exposure include coal-fired power plants and smelters that heat arsenic-containing ores to process copper or lead. Today the quantity of arsenic released into the environment in the United States by human activities is three times more than that released from natural sources, says the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
The form of arsenic in the examples above is inorganic arsenic. It's a carcinogen known to cause bladder, lung, and skin cancer in people and to increase risks of cardiovascular disease, immunodeficiencies, and type 2 diabetes.
The other form that arsenic takes is organic arsenic, created when arsenic binds to molecules containing carbon. Fish can contain an organic form of arsenic called arsenobetaine, generally considered nontoxic to humans. But questions have been raised about the human health effects of other types of organic arsenic in foods, including juice.
Use of organic arsenic in agricultural products has also caused concern. For instance, the EPA in 2006 took steps to stop the use of herbicides containing organic arsenic because of their potential to turn into inorganic arsenic in soil and contaminate drinking water. And in 2011, working with the FDA, drug company Alpharma agreed to suspend the sale of Roxarsone, a poultry-feed additive, because it contained an organic form of arsenic that could convert into inorganic arsenic inside the bird, potentially contaminating the meat. Or it could contaminate soil when chicken droppings are used as fertilizer. Other arsenic feed additives are still being used.
What our tests found
We went shopping in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York in August and September, buying 28 apple juices and three grape juices. Our samples came from ready-to-drink bottles, juice boxes, and cans of concentrate. For most juices, we bought three different lot numbers to assess variability. (For some juices, we couldn't find three lots, so we tested one or two.) In all, we tested 88 samples.
Five samples of apple juice and four of grape juice had total arsenic levels exceeding the 10 ppb federal limit for bottled and drinking water. Levels in the apple juices ranged from 1.1 to 13.9 ppb, and grape-juice levels were even higher, 5.9 to 24.7 ppb. Most of the total arsenic in our samples was inorganic, our tests showed.
As for lead, about one fourth of all juice samples had levels at or above the 5-ppb limit for bottled water. The top lead level for apple juice was 13.6 ppb; for grape juice, 15.9 ppb.
The following brands had at least one sample of apple juice that exceeded 10 ppb: Apple & Eve, Great Value (Walmart), and Mott's. For grape juice, at least one sample from Walgreens and Welch's exceeded that threshold. And these brands had one or more samples of apple juice that exceeded 5 ppb of lead: America's Choice (A&P), Gerber, Gold Emblem (CVS), Great Value, Joe's Kids (Trader Joe's), Minute Maid, Seneca, and Walgreens. At least one sample of grape juice exceeding 5 ppb of lead came from Gold Emblem, Walgreens, and Welch's. Our findings provide a spot check of a number of local juice aisles, but they can't be used to draw general conclusions about arsenic or lead levels in any particular brand. Even within a single tested brand, levels of arsenic and lead sometimes varied widely. To see our complete test results for all 88 samples, download this PDF.
Arsenic-tainted soil in U.S. orchards is a likely source of contamination for apples, and finding lead with arsenic in juices that we tested is not surprising. Even with a ban on lead-arsenate insecticides, "we are finding problems with some Washington state apples, not because of irresponsible farming practices now but because lead-arsenate pesticides that were used here decades ago remain in the soil," says Denise Wilson, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Washington who has tested apple juices and discovered elevated arsenic levels even in brands labeled organic.
Over the years, a shift has occurred in how juice sold in America is produced. To make apple juice, manufacturers often blend water with apple-juice concentrate from multiple sources. For the past decade, most concentrate has come from China (PDF). Concerns have been raised about the possible continuing use of arsenical pesticides there, and several Chinese provinces that are primary apple-growing regions are known to have high arsenic concentrations in groundwater.
A much bigger test than ours would be needed to establish any correlation between elevated arsenic or lead levels and the juice concentrate's country of origin. Samples we tested included some made from concentrate from multiple countries including Argentina, China, New Zealand, South Africa, and Turkey; others came from a single country. A few samples solely from the United States had elevated levels of lead or arsenic, and others did not. The same was true for samples containing only Chinese concentrate.
The FDA has been collecting its own data to see whether it should set guidelines to continue to ensure the safety of apple juice, a spokeswoman told us.
The Juice Products Association said, "We are committed to providing nutritious and safe fruit juices to consumers and will comply with limits established by the agency."
Answering a crucial question
We also wanted to know whether people who drink juice end up being exposed to more arsenic than those who don't.
So we commissioned an analysis of data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), conducted annually by the National Center for Health Statistics. Information is collected on the health and nutrition of a nationally representative sample of the U.S. population, based on interviews and physical exams that may include a blood or urine test. Officials and researchers often use the data to determine risk factors for major diseases and develop public health policy. In fact, data on lead in the blood of NHANES participants were instrumental in developing policies that have successfully resulted in lead being removed from gasoline.
Our analysis was led by Richard Stahlhut, M.D., M.P.H., an environmental health researcher at the University of Rochester with expertise in NHANES data, working with Consumer Reports statisticians. Ana Navas-Acien, M.D., Ph.D., a physician-epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, also provided guidance. She was the lead author of a 2008 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (PDF) that first linked low-level arsenic exposure with the prevalence of type 2 diabetes in the United States.
Stahlhut reviewed NHANES data from 2003 through 2008 from participants tested for total urinary arsenic who reported their food and drink consumption for 24 hours the day before their NHANES visit. Because most ingested arsenic is excreted in urine, the best measure of recent exposure is a urine test.
Following Navas-Acien's advice, we excluded from our NHANES analysis anyone with results showing detectable levels of arsenobetaine, the organic arsenic in seafood. That made the results we analyzed more likely to represent inorganic arsenic, of greatest concern in terms of potential health risks.
The resulting analysis of almost 3,000 study participants found that those reporting apple-juice consumption had on average 19 percent greater levels of total urinary arsenic than those subjects who did not, and those who reported drinking grape juice had 20 percent higher levels. The results might understate the correlation between juice consumption and urinary arsenic levels because NHANES urinary data exclude children younger than 6, who tend to be big juice drinkers.
"The current analysis suggests that these juices may be an important contributor to dietary arsenic exposure," says Keeve Nachman, Ph.D., a risk scientist at the Center for a Livable Future and the Bloomberg School of Public Health, both at Johns Hopkins University. "It would be prudent to pursue measures to understand and limit young children's exposures to arsenic in juice."
Robert Wright, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor of pediatrics and environmental health at Harvard University who specializes in research on the effect of heavy-metals exposure in children, says that findings from our juice tests and database analysis concern him: "Because of their small size, a child drinking a box of juice would consume a larger per-body-weight dose of arsenic than an adult drinking the exact same box of juice. Those brands with elevated arsenic should investigate the source and eliminate it."
A chronic problem
Arsenic has been notoriously 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. But chronic toxicity can result from long-term exposure to much lower levels in food, and even to water that meets the 10-ppb drinking-water limit.
A 2004 study of children in Bangladesh (PDF) suggested diminished intelligence based on test scores in children exposed to arsenic in drinking water at levels above 5 ppb, says study author Joseph Graziano, Ph.D., a professor of environmental health sciences and pharmacology at Columbia University. He's now conducting similar research with children living in New Hampshire and Maine, where arsenic levels of 10 to 100 ppb are commonly found in well water, to determine whether better nutrition in the United States affects the results.
People with private wells may face greater risks than those on public systems because they're responsible for testing and treating their own water. In Maine, where almost half the population relies on private wells, the USGS found arsenic levels in well water as high as 3,100 ppb.
And a study published in 2011 (PDF) in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health examined the long-term effects of low-level exposure on more than 300 rural Texans whose groundwater was estimated to have arsenic at median levels below the federal drinking-water standard. It found that exposure was related to poor scores in language, memory, and other brain functions.
Chronic arsenic exposure can initially cause gastrointestinal problems and skin discoloration or lesions. Exposure over time, which the World Health Organization says could be five to 20 years, could increase the risk of various cancers and 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. Usually the connection to arsenic exposure is not made immediately, as Sharyn Duffy of Geneseo, N.Y., discovered. She visited a doctor in 2007 about pain and skin changes on the sole of her left foot. She was referred to a podiatrist and eventually received a diagnosis of hyperkeratosis, in which lesions develop or thick skin forms on the palms or soles of the feet. It can be among the earliest symptoms of chronic arsenic poisoning. But she says it was roughly two years before she was finally referred to a neurologist, who suggested testing for arsenic. She had double the typical levels.
"Testing for arsenic isn't part of a routine checkup," says Duffy, a retiree. "When you come in with symptoms like I had, ordering that kind of test probably wouldn't even occur to most doctors."
Michael Harbut, M.D., chief of the environmental cancer program at Karmanos Institute in Detroit, says, "Given what we know about the wide range of arsenic exposure sources we have in this country, I suspect there is an awful lot of chronic, low-level arsenic poisoning going on that's never properly diagnosed."
Emerging research suggests 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.
Case in point: From 1958 through 1970, residents of Antofagasta, Chile, were exposed to naturally occurring arsenic in drinking water (PDF) that peaked at almost 1,000 ppb before an arsenic removal plant was installed. Studies led by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley found that people born during that period who had probable exposure in the womb and during 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.
"Recent studies have shown that early-childhood exposure to arsenic carries the most serious long-term risk," says Joshua Hamilton of the Marine Biological Laboratory. "So even though reducing arsenic exposure is important for everyone, we need to pay special attention to protecting pregnant moms, babies, and young kids."
Other dietary exposures
In addition to juice, foods including chicken, rice, and even baby food have been found to contain arsenic-sometimes at higher levels than the amounts found in juice. Brian Jackson, Ph.D., an analytical chemist and research associate professor at Dartmouth College, presented his findings at a June 2011 scientific conference in Aberdeen, Scotland. He reported finding up to 23 ppb of arsenic in lab tests of name-brand jars of baby food, with inorganic arsenic representing 70 to 90 percent of those total amounts.
Similar results turned up in a 2004 study conducted by FDA scientists in Cincinnati, who found arsenic levels of up to 24 ppb in baby food, with sweet potatoes, carrots, green beans, and peaches containing only the inorganic form. A United Kingdom study published in 2008 (PDF) found that the levels of inorganic arsenic in 20-ounce packets of dried infant rice cereals ranged from 60 to 160 ppb. Rice-based infant cereals are often the first solid food that babies eat.
Rice frequently contains high levels of inorganic arsenic because it is among plants that are unusually efficient at taking up arsenic from the soil and incorporating it in the grains people eat. Moreover, much of the rice produced in the U.S. is grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas, on land formerly used to grow cotton, where arsenical pesticides were used for decades.
"Initially, in some regions rice planted there produced little grain due to these arsenical pesticides, but farmers then bred a type of rice specifically designed to produce high yields on the contaminated soil," says Andrew Meharg, professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Aberdeen, in Scotland. Meharg studies human exposures to arsenic in the environment. His research over the past six years has shown that U.S. rice has among the highest average inorganic arsenic levels in the world-almost three times higher than levels in Basmati rice imported from low-arsenic areas of Nepal, India, and Pakistan. Rice from Egypt has the lowest levels of all.
Infant rice cereal for the U.S. market is generally made from U.S. rice, Meharg says, but labeling usually doesn't specify country of origin. He says exposure to arsenic through infant rice cereals could be reduced greatly if cereal makers used techniques that don't require growing rice in water-flooded paddies or if they obtained rice from low-arsenic areas. His 2007 study (PDF) found that median arsenic levels in California rice were 41 percent lower than levels in rice from the south-central U.S.
Setting federal standards
Evidence of arsenic's ability to cause cancer and other life-threatening illnesses has surged because some of the diseases linked to it have latency periods of several decades. Only recently have scientists been able to more fully measure the effects in populations that were exposed to elevated levels of arsenic in drinking water many years ago.
The Environmental Protection Agency periodically revises its assessment of the toxicity of various chemicals to offer guidance on drinking-water standards. Based on such a review, the agency changed the water standard for arsenic to 10 ppb, effective in 2006, from the 50-ppb limit it set in 1975. The EPA had proposed a 5-ppb limit in 2000, so the current limit is a compromise that came only after years of haggling over the costs of removing arsenic. Since 2006, New Jersey has had a 5-ppb threshold, advising residents that water with arsenic levels above that shouldn't be used for drinking or cooking.
For known human carcinogens such as inorganic arsenic, the EPA assumes there's actually no "safe" level of exposure, so it normally sets exposure limits that include a margin of safety to ideally allow for only one additional case of cancer in a million people, or at worst, no more than one in 10,000. For water with 10 ppb of arsenic, the excess cancer risk is one in 500.
Debate over that standard is likely to begin anew. The agency's latest draft report, from February 2010, proposes that the number used to calculate the cancer risk posed by ingesting inorganic arsenic be increased 17-fold to reflect arsenic's role in causing bladder and lung cancer. The proposal "suggests that arsenic's carcinogenic properties have been underestimated for a long time and that the federal drinking-water standard is underprotective based on current science," says Keeve Nachman, the Johns Hopkins scientist.
Each year the FDA tests a variety of foods and beverages for arsenic and other contaminants. It also started a program in 2005 to test for specific toxins such as arsenic and lead in domestic and imported products. As of late November, that program had published results for 160 samples of apple juice and concentrate. And the agency can alert inspectors at U.S. ports to conduct increased surveillance for products suspected to pose risks. Currently there's an alert for increased surveillance of apple concentrate from China and six other countries "where we have a suspicion there may be high levels of arsenic in their products," says FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Yao. But in fiscal 2010, the agency conducted physical inspections of only 2 percent of imported food shipments. For more about the FDA's tests, read our update and download a PDF of our complete test results.
Consumers Union urges federal officials to set a standard for total arsenic in apple and grape juice. Our research suggests that the standard should be 3 ppb. Concerning lead, juice should at least meet the bottled-water standard of 5 ppb. Such standards would better protect children, who are most vulnerable to the effects of arsenic and lead. And they're achievable levels: 41 percent of the samples we tested met both thresholds.
Moreover, the EPA should impose stricter drinking-water standards for arsenic, Consumers Union believes. (The drinking-water threshold for lead is 15 ppb, which acknowledges that many older homes have water pipes or solder with lead.) Officials should also ban arsenic in pesticides, animal-feed additives, and fertilizers.
As our tests show, sources of lead haven't been eliminated, but dramatic progress has been made: Since the 1970s, average blood lead levels in children younger than 6 have dropped by about 90 percent, thanks to a federal ban on lead in house paint and gas. The U.S. should be equally aggressive with arsenic, suggests Joseph Graziano at Columbia University. "We tackled every source, from gasoline to paint to solder in food cans," he says, "and we should be just as vigilant in preventing arsenic from entering our food and water because the consequences of exposure are enormous for adults as well as children."
How much juice do children drink?
Too many children drink too much juice, according to our poll of parents. One in four toddlers 2 and younger and 45 percent of children ages 3 to 5 drink 7 or more ounces of juice a day. The American Academy of Pediatrics cautions that to help prevent obesity and tooth decay, children younger than 6 should drink no more than 6 ounces a day, about the size of a juice box. (Infants younger than 6 months shouldn't drink any.) The possible presence of arsenic or lead in juices is all the more reason to stick with those nutrition-based limits.
Our findings are from 555 telephone interviews in October with parents, who were asked about children's juice consumption the previous day.
Find out how much arsenic is in your groundwater
Arsenic can contaminate groundwater used for drinking and irrigation in areas where it is geologically abundant and in other areas where chemical conditions are likely to cause it to dissolve into water. Levels can vary widely throughout the United States, as illustrated in the map at right showing arsenic measurements for groundwater samples from about 31,000 wells and springs in 49 states compiled by the USGS.
Orange or red symbols on the map indicate areas where samples contained arsenic at levels exceeding the federal limit of 10 micrograms per liter, or 10 parts per billion (ppb) for public drinking water.
Public-water-supply systems are required to treat water that tests high in arsenic so that it meets federal limits before delivering it to consumers. And in New Jersey, public water systems must meet an even stricter limit of 5 ppb. But if you have a private well rather than a public system, you are responsible for testing and treating it.
To learn more about why it's so important to reduce your exposure to even relatively low levels of arsenic in your drinking water, check out this helpful video produced by the Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program. And for tips on how to get your water tested and how to select a home treatment system, read "Ways to Reduce Your Family's Risk."
The 31,000 groundwater samples represented in this map were collected for studies on potable groundwater resources by the USGS, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Texas Water Development Commission, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and the six New England states. Estimation of the arsenic concentration in groundwater in any specific area must consider the following limitations and sources of variability:
- The data include a variety of well types, including private wells, public-supply wells, and monitoring wells not used for water supply.
- These groundwater samples do not represent drinking water served by public-water-supply systems because these utilities may treat or mix groundwater with high arsenic concentrations from individual wells with water containing lower arsenic levels in order to meet drinking water standards before delivering it to consumers.
- The appearance of the arsenic distribution is influenced by the order in which wells are plotted. In this map, wells with higher concentrations are drawn on top of those with more moderate concentrations. This overplotting may exaggerate the frequency of high values in areas where wells are close together. But given the risks posed by arsenic exposure, we opted in favor of making areas with elevated arsenic visible whenever possible to encourage private well owners in those areas to test and treat their water to reduce exposure risks.
- Arsenic concentration may vary with depth within the same aquifer, or between aquifers that are stacked vertically-for example, a shallow sand and gravel aquifer can overlie a deeper bedrock aquifer. The map does not show the vertical distribution of arsenic.
- Many of the wells were sampled more than once, but evaluation of the data indicates that there is no relation between arsenic concentration and time tested for most of the wells.
With these qualifications in mind, the data above provides an estimate of arsenic occurrence in the groundwater resource in general. Visit the USGS for additional information on the studies behind the map, along with more detailed maps for various portions of the country.
Ways to reduce your family's risk
Test your water. 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 system from the EPA.
Limit children's juice consumption. Nutrition guidelines set by the American Academy of Pediatrics can help. The academy recommends that infants younger than 6 months shouldn't drink juice; children up to 6 years old should consume no more than four to six ounces a day and older children, no more than 8 to 12 ounces a day. Diluting juice with distilled or purified water can help meet those goals.
Consider your food. 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.
Need a home-treatment system? Contact NSF International (800-673-8010) for info on systems certified to lower arsenic levels to no more than 10 ppb. The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension discusses treatment technologies; click on "Removal of Arsenic from Household Water."
If you're concerned, get tested. Ask your doctor for a urine test for you or your child to determine arsenic levels. Don't eat seafood for 48 to 72 hours before being tested to avoid misleadingly high levels from "fish arsenic." For a medical toxicologist in your area who can interpret results, call the American Association of Poison Control Centers at 800-222-1222.
(Copyright © 2011 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. All Rights Reserved.)