Are There Dangerous Lead Levels In Your Rice? How Much Should You Be Eating?

By Philip Ross on April 12, 2013 11:39 AM EDT

rice
White rice imported to the U.S. from Asia, Europe and South America has been found to contain dangerous levels of lead. (Photo: Flickr/Ruocaled)

Researchers from Monmouth University in New Jersey have found that white rice imported to the U.S. contains dangerous levels of lead - in some cases, up to 120 times the level considered safe for consumption. The research, headed by environmental chemistry professor Dr. Tsanangurayi Tongesayi, was presented Wednesday at a meeting of the American Chemical Society. It will also be published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Health.

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The study shows that the amount of lead found in rice from Asia, Eruope and South America contained between 6 and 12 milligrams of lead/kilogram - between 20 and 120 times the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's, or FDA's, "provisional total tolerable intake," or PTTI, depending on the age of the person eating it.

The highest levels of dangerous lead they found came from Taiwan and China.

While imports account for only seven percent of total U.S. rice consumption, imports of rice have increased 200 percent since 1999 and continue to rise, making its way into a wide range of supermarket chains, grocery stores and ethnic specialty restaurants.

A spokesperson for the FDA told BBC News that the agency plans to review the Monmouth University study to see if any action must be taken.

How Much Lead Is Dangerous?

Lead is everywhere, occurring both naturally and through human activities. According to the New York State Department of Health, lead can be found in almost anything, including dust, toys, food and even the air. In small doses, lead is pretty much harmless. Even our baby food contains permissible levels of lead (15 parts per billion), and so does our bottled water. One part per billion is equivalent to the value of one penny compared to that of $10 million, the FDA reports. In other words, it's miniscule.

The average level of lead present in the adult human body is less than ten micrograms/decileter, with the median level being three micrograms/decileter (between 25 and 40 micrograms/decileter, there is evidence of of potential psychological problems, accroding to the N.Y. health department.)

Lead is still a toxin, however, and its adverse affects when absorbed into the body in larger amounts are well documented.

When lead is digested or absorbed into the body, more than 90 percent of it will accumulate and be stored in the bones. Depending on the amount of exposure, lead can cause serious neurological affects, including impaired concentration, hearing loss and seizures. It can also cause gastrointestinal health issues like nausea and dyspepsia, which is recurrent pain in the upper abdomen.

The white rice study conducted by N.J. researchers found that imported rice contains levels of lead that exceed the FDA's permissible amounts. Those most affected by these findings are Asian-Americans and infants and children, because Asian-Americans tend to eat larger amounts of rice than the average U.S. person, and young children are more sensitive to the affects of lead poisoning.

According to Tongesayi and his team, the daily exposure levels for infants and children from eating the contaminated rice would be 30 to 60 times higher than the FDA's PTTI. Asian children, however, would be exposed to 60 to 120 times as much lead as the FDA says is acceptable. And adults? Twenty to 40 times higher than the PTTI levels.

Should You Still Eat Rice?

While the levels of lead found in imported rice exceed the FDA recommended levels, researchers said they don't want to discourage people from eating rice.

"We just hope that our results will 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," Tongesayi told Time.

"We want people to be aware that some of the foods they are eating are tainted with these toxic chemicals," he said. Tongesayi advises people to simply consider eating less rice.

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