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Worrisome Levels of Lead Found In Imported Rice
An analysis of imported brands found surprising levels of the metal.
Reporting at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society, a group of
researchers lead byÂ Tsanangurayi Tongesayi, an associate professor of
chemistry atÂ Monmouth University in New Jersey announced the results
of their analysis of rice fromÂ Asia, Europe and South America. The imports,
which currently make up about 7% of rice consumed in America, contained higher
than acceptable levels of lead.
The levels ranged from six milligrams/kilogram to 12 milligrams/kilogram;
factoring in average consumption, that added up to estimated lead exposure
levels 30 to 60 times greater than the Food and Drug Administrationâ€™s (FDA)
provisional total tolerable intake (PTTI) levels for children and 20-40 times
greater than the standard exposure levels for adults.
The agencyâ€™s PTTI represent the maximum level of contaminant exposure before
potentially toxic or adverse health effects might occur. â€śNow, according to the
FDA, for chemical toxicants to cause a health effect, they have to be ten times
the PTTI. Our calculated exposure levels were two to 12 times higher than ten
times the PTTI. Meaning, they can cause adverseÂ healthÂ effects,â€ť says
Because Asian populations in the U.S. tend to consume the most rice, the
researchers also calculated exposure levels for these groups, and estimated
thatÂ Asian infants and children in the U.S. could be exposed to lead at 60
to 120 times higher than the FDAâ€™s PTTI. And young children under six years old
can be especially vulnerable to leadÂ poisoning, which can impair mental
and physical development and, if the exposure is sustained, can be fatal.
â€śThe thing is that is rice becoming a staple food for a larger percentage of
the population,â€ť says Tongesayi. He says their calculations are also
conservative, since they were basing consumption on the daily recommended
servings. Itâ€™s likely that many people consume more than whatâ€™s recommend in a
given dayâ€“ or week.
Rice from Taiwan and China contained the highest levels of lead, although
rice from Italy, India, Thailand, Bhutan and the Czech Republic also contained
levels higher than the PTTI. The researchers are continuing their sampling with
rice from Pakistan and Brazil as well as other countries. With the increase in
imports,Â Tongesayi says rice from these countries are not only appearing
in ethnic and specialty restaurants and stores, but also in mass market grocery
store and supermarket chains.
While lead exposure can negatively affect
cognitiveÂ developmentÂ and performance in kids, adults with high lead
exposure can also experience problems with blood pressure, heart disease and
calciumÂ deficiency.Â Tongesayiâ€™s team believes the rice became
contaminated during growing and harvesting. â€śProcessing can potentially add
some contaminants, but from what we studied, it seems that the contamination is
coming from contaminated soils andÂ contaminatedÂ irrigation waters,â€ť
The findings come after concerns about arsenic contamination in rice as well, but, say the
researchers, shouldnâ€™t discourage people from eating rice. Instead, Tongesayi
and his colleagues hope their work increases consumer awareness about food
safety and prompts more stringent oversight of imported products. â€śWe just hope
that our results willÂ inform public policy and will be used to create
stricter regulations on lead in rice, or be used to come up with eating
advisories like [those] with mercury in fish,â€ť he says. â€śIt is a bit difficult
because people canâ€™t stop eating it, and that is not what we are trying to say,
but we wantÂ peopleÂ to be aware that some of the foods they are eating
are tainted with these toxicÂ chemicals. You can eat less on a given day.â€ť
Tongesayi only studied imported rice so the findings arenâ€™t applicable to
rice grown in the U.S. While the U.S. is a major exporter of rice, imports of
rice and rice flour have increased by over 200% since 1999, raising concerns
about the safety of the products. Noah Bartolucci, a spokesperson for the FDA, said
to BBC News that the agency â€śplans to review the new research on lead
levels in imported rice released todayâ€ť. Â Any adverse effects from
contaminants will need to be weighed against the grainsâ€™ nutritional benefits.
Yet, such results should alert regulatory agencies to be vigilant as global
markets continue to expand and imports increase.
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