What the FDA is Ignoring Could Give You Cancer

New tests from Consumer's Union reveal serious inaction on behalf of the FDA when it comes to protecting the public.

December 1, 2011

Sipping arsenic through a straw? You might be better off with a whole apple.

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."

Is Organic Any Safer?

Because both arsenic and lead can linger in soil for decades, it's not uncommon for both metals to wind up in the soil of organic orchards and grape vineyards, despite the fact that organic certification requires soil to lay fallow for three years before it’s used for organic produce. "We didn't have enough organic samples to make scientifically sound comparisons," Hansen says, but none of the organic samples tested exhibited levels of lead or arsenic that exceeded their safety benchmarks. "We would have to look at more organic juices," he adds, "and the safety would depend on where the orchards and vineyards were located."

Consumer's Union is currently petitioning the FDA to lower its maximum tolerance limit for arsenic to 3 ppb and 5 ppb for lead. Time will tell if they're successful, but in the meantime, there are ways to cut down on arsenic and lead:

• Skip the fruit juice altogether. Arsenic and lead contamination aside, fruit juices are sugary drinks with little to no nutritional value, once all the fiber and antioxidants in fruit pulp have been stripped away. And considering that it takes three to four apples to make an eight-ounce glass of apple juice, you'll be eating less potentially contaminated fruit if you eat it whole than if you drink it, although, says Hansen, "We can't make any conclusions about whether whole fruits would be just as contaminated as juices based upon our results."

• Limit your or your child's daily intake. If going cold turkey on juice isn't an option, simply cut back. There is no safe level of lead, and research is even finding that low-level exposure to arsenic can cause type 2 diabetes, in addition to cancer. Hansen says that, based on what they found, a 22-pound child should consume no more than 4 ounces (oz.) of either apple or grape juice per day; a 35-pound child no more than 6.75 oz. (the equivalent of one juice box); and a 75-pound child no more than two juice boxes. Those limits fall in line with what the American Academy of Pediatrics already recommend to prevent children from consuming too much sugar in juice form. This goes for apple cider as well; Hansen cites previous studies finding that ciders are just as likely as apple juices to contain arsenic.

• Get a water filter if needed, and thin out your juice. Arsenic is a common water contaminant, but a standard pitcher or faucet-mount water filter won't remove it; you'll need a more sophisticated form of treatment. The U.S. Geological Survey has a map that lays out the areas in which arsenic is most likely to be found, and if you live in one of those areas, contact your local water utility to ask about treatment options. When your water is arsenic free, you can use it to thin out apple and grape juice; you'll not only cut the arsenic and/or lead in half, you'll also eliminate some of the sugar.

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