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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Arsenic in Juice: Do Parents Need to Worry?

By Roy Benaroch, MD

Consumer Reports magazine has released a study of apple and grape juice that’s causing a new worry among American parents: are our kids drinking too much arsenic?

The scare started with a report on “The Dr. Oz Show” in September, where Dr. Oz discussed his own investigation concluding that arsenic levels in apple juice were dangerous.

Now, I’m no fan of juice—and I agree that kids really shouldn’t be drinking much of this sugary stuff. But there’s another side to the story.

Consumer Reports and Dr. Oz are saying that many of the samples of juice they’ve been testing contain more than 10 parts per billion (ppb) of arsenic, which exceeds the EPA-determined safety threshold for arsenic in water. The EPA doesn’t have an official safety threshold for juice, but has said that they consider 23 ppb a reasonable “action threshold” above which further testing is needed. Very few of the juice samples tested by Dr. Oz’s lab or Consumer Reports were above the 23 ppb threshold, and none of the samples tested by the FDA in response to Dr. Oz’s original story were above 23 ppb.

Both Consumer Reports and Dr. Oz have confused the issue by comparing the arsenic levels they found to the wrong standard (that of water instead of juice). They may be correct that the threshold for juice needs to be lowered, but it seems like they measured their numbers, then afterwards moved the goalposts so their stories had more impact.

It’s important to understand that there are different forms of chemicals. Arsenic is a natural element, abundant on earth. It exists in two forms—organic arsenic, which unless consumed in tremendous quantities is non-toxic, and inorganic arsenic. Inorganic arsenic is used in pesticides and industrial chemicals, and it’s poisonous. Dr. Oz’s and Consumer Report’s assays reported the total arsenic, not the concentrations of the toxic kind.

It would be nice if we could have a zero-tolerance policy towards chemicals like arsenic, but that isn’t possible. All natural products will have some poisonous chemicals, including arsenic, mercury, cyanide, formaldehyde—you name it, and a sensitive chemical assay can find at least some of it in everything that we eat or drink. Fortunately, our bodies can protect us against ordinary exposures. What we need is good monitoring to enforce reasonable safety thresholds that protect everyone, based on good science. First, figure out what the safe exposure level is. Then enforce it.

Does the arsenic in juice study worry you? Share your thoughts in the comments below or in the WebMD Parenting Community.

Posted by: Roy Benaroch, MD, FAAP at 3:52 pm

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