Earlier this year, the TV talk-show host Dr. Mehmet Oz commissioned tests on apple juice and found that almost 30 percent contained levels of arsenic—a known carcinogen—that exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency's standard for drinking water. The Food and Drug Administration's response? "Relax! Everything's fine!" The agency claimed that the arsenic in foods existed at levels that are "essentially harmless."
Last week, however, the agency released the results of its own tests of arsenic in apple juice. Since 2005, the agency has tested apple juice for levels of total arsenic and inorganic arsenic, which is the more toxic form of the metal, and has found levels as high as 236 parts per billion (ppb), almost 24 times higher than the EPA's limit of 10 ppb in drinking water. Though the agency has never set a limit on the levels of arsenic in juice, they do have the authority to seize juices that exceed 23 ppb, but they've never done so. "The FDA attacked Oz for being an alarmist," says Michael Hansen, PhD, chief scientist at Consumer's Union. "What FDA didn't report at the time was that they'd tested eight juice samples that were above their concern level but hadn't made those results public."
Just as the FDA was finally making those results public, Consumer's Union released yet another alarming report finding 25 percent of juice samples tested contained not only excessive levels of arsenic, but high levels of lead as well. It's not just apple juice either; grape juice appears to be just as contaminated.
Fouled Fruit Juice
Researchers at Consumer's Union purchased 88 samples of apple and grape juice from stores in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut and had them independently tested for the presence of both toxic heavy metals. Ten percent contained levels of arsenic that exceed the EPA's 10-ppb limit of arsenic in drinking water, and 25 percent exceeded the FDA's lead limit of 5 ppb in bottled water—the EPA has mandated a limit of zero for lead in drinking water. The FDA's own tests on arsenic in 160 apple juice samples revealed that 21 percent exceeded the agency's 23-ppb "level of concern," and 36 percent exceeded the EPA's drinking water limit.
Though the levels of both lead and arsenic varied widely within each brand, Consumer's Union found lead levels exceeding the 5-ppb mark in America's Choice, Gerber, CVS's Gold Emblem brand, Walmart's Great Value brand, Trader Joe's Joe's Kids brand, Minute Maid, Seneca, Walgreen's, and Welch's. Arsenic levels exceeding the 10-ppb mark were found in Apple & Eve, Great Value, Mott's, and Walgreen's juices. Contrary to some reports that apples from China are more likely to be contaminated with lead and arsenic than apples from other parts of the world, Hansen says that their tests didn't show a connection between contamination levels and country of origin.
All that arsenic and lead does wind up in people, too. Consumer's Union analyzed data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's data on chemical contaminants in people, and found that those who drank apple juice regularly 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. Those results didn't even look at children younger than 6, who are most likely to drink apple and grape juice.
Arsenic: A Problem That Won't Biodegrade
"Arsenical pesticides have been used on cotton and other orchard crops for over 100 years," says Hansen, and lead arsenate, a double whammy, is still used on cotton in some regions and can contaminate orchards situated close to cotton fields. Furthermore, arsenic is a common additive to chicken feed. "About 75 percent of those feed additives pass through chicken into their manure," he adds, "and it's not uncommon for farmers to spread chicken litter [manure] as fertilizer." Although Pfizer stopped producing roxarsone, the most common arsenic-containing food additive, a few months ago, other companies still produce it, and it's still allowed for use by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Arsenic is also a common water contaminant, existing naturally in soil and bedrock, so Hansen says that some of the arsenic contamination may have come from contaminated water that was used to reconstitute juice concentrates.
What concerns him more, however, is the fact that the health data on arsenic is getting worse. Scientists use something called a cancer slope factor to estimate the risk of cancers caused by carcinogenic substances, he says. "The slope factor for cancers caused by arsenic used to be 1.5," he says. "But when you can look at the most recent science, the combined risk for skin, bladder, and lung cancers is 25.7. That's 17-fold worse than what they thought."
Filed Under: FOOD SAFETY
Published on: December 1, 2011