Rice imported from Asia, Europe and South America was found to have high levels of lead, and consuming it daily would result in exposure to levels many times greater than the Food and Drug Administration recommends.
The most contaminated rice came from Taiwan and China. Rice from the Czech Republic, Bhutan, Italy, India and Thailand also had potentially harmful levels. The next step for the authors is to study lead levels in rice from Pakistan, Brazil and other countries.
Exposure to lead can cause permanent brain damage, and is particularly dangerous for pregnant women, who can pass on the heavy metal to their developing children, and to children under the age of six. A test prescribed by your doctor or pediatrician can tell you how much lead is circulating in your blood, and while the federal action limit for children is set at 5 micrograms per deciliter, experts warn that no amount of lead can be considered safe. The most common way to be exposed to lead remains old paint in homes built before 1978, and to household and neighborhood dust, which often is contaminated with lead residue deposited before lead was removed from gasoline.
The study's author, Tsanangurayi Tongesayi of Monmouth University, who presented his findings at the National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, said an infant who consumed the imported rice would be exposed at 30-60 times the level recommended by the FDA to avoid damaging exposure. Asian infants, who consume more rice, might be exposed at levels 60-120 times that level, and even adults--who are less susceptible to lasting effects from lead exposure--might be exposed at levels 20-40 times that level.
The good news for consumers is that 93% of rice consumed in the U.S. is grown in the U.S. (major growing areas include Louisiana, California, Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi), so most of us have been purchasing rice free of this particular risk. A Consumer Reports study last year found little risk from lead or cadmium contamination in U.S. rice. Unfortunately, it did find that U.S. rice is often contaminated with arsenic, a carcinogen, and that buying USDA Organic-labeled rice was not a reliable way to avoid the contaminant.
What to do? Based on the arsenic risk, Consumer Reports recommended that babies eat no more than one serving of infant rice cereal per day on average, and that parents should provide other grains, like oatmeal and wheat, which tested cleaner. Consumer Reports is also urging the federal agencies should ban the use of pesticides and fertilizers (including manure) containing arsenic, and that arsenic-containing drugs should not be fed to farm animals. Meanwhile, the FDA's own testing of rice, which confirmed that there is contamination, prompted it to recommend that consumers do nothing to change their rice consumption habits, other than to ensure that diets include a variety of whole grains.
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