Millions Could Be in Danger Due to Cooking Rice With High Arsenic Water

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A study from the University of Sheffield found that millions of people could be at serious health risk from using water contaminated with higher than the recommended levels of arsenic.

Academics at the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield found in their new research that there are countries that do not adhere to the current World Health Organization (WHO) recommended limits on the levels of arsenic in water, putting around 32% of the global population at risk of serious health issues. Those from low and middle-income countries are particularly the ones most affected.

Several countries such as China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, and Nepal, where rice is the main staple food, use the outdated WHO limit (50 ยตg L-1 or parts per billion) for inorganic arsenic in water which was introduced in 1963.

Long-term exposure to arsenic in water used for drinking, food preparation, or irrigation of crops can cause a range of health issues affecting every organ in the body, such as cancer, diabetes, and pulmonary and cardiovascular diseases.

The new study compared how using different methods to cook common rice types with water contaminated with arsenic affected the amount absorbed into the food. The research found that white and parboiled rice, which are more commonly consumed in West and Asia, accumulate more arsenic than brown rice when cooked with arsenic-spiked water. Using arsenic-safe water removes arsenic from these rice types.

Dr. Manoj Menon, research lead from the University of Sheffield’s Institute for Sustainable Food and the Department of Geography, stated, “Both rice and drinking water in the UK are regulated for arsenic, but further afield in Asia and Africa, there is often very little or no regulation to current WHO standards. We know that as many as 40 countries in the world allow more than 10 parts per billion in drinking water, and 19 countries have no evidence of any regulations.

“Rice is one of the major cereal crops in the world, contributing to the dietary energy and nutrition of more than half of the world’s population. We already know that rice has more arsenic than other cereals, and the risk is exacerbated if we cook rice with arsenic-contaminated water above the WHO recommended limit.

“That is why it is vitally important that countries worldwide work to adopt the latest WHO recommendations to ensure arsenic exposure is minimized as much as possible to protect the public.” 

Previous studies by the team found that the way rice is cooked is also meaningful in reducing arsenic loading. Certain methods can remove more than half of the naturally occurring arsenic within rice grains.

The new research found that if there is no access to arsenic-safe water, the best way to cook rice is to use excess water and drain it off when done (similar to pasta or noodles) to reduce the risks.

Dr. Menon added, “One of the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals for good health and wellbeing is for everyone to have access to clean water and sanitation. This cannot happen without regulations being implemented in countries where limits or water testing are not currently in place.

“There are genuine concerns for rice consumers about consuming arsenic, but our successive studies have shown there are ways we can try to minimize our risk of exposure. Even in countries where there may be higher levels of inorganic arsenic in water supplies, where possible, this includes selecting varieties of rice that don’t absorb as much arsenic and using cooking methods that remove as much arsenic from the water and grains as possible.”