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Low-Dose Arsenic: In Search of a Risk Threshold

Low-Dose Arsenic: In Search of a Risk Threshold


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Naturally occurring crystals of inorganic arsenic crystals, magnification unknown.
© Manfred Kage/Science Source

Scientists long ago linked high levels of arsenic in groundwater to cancer and other environmental illnesses, particularly in Taiwan, Bangladesh, and South America, where the contamination can often reach extraordinarily high levels of 1,000 ppb or more. Now concerns are shifting to the health effects of much lower doses such as those that many Americans live with every day.

Margaret Karagas, who directs the Children's Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Center at Dartmouth College, says researchers increasingly believe that arsenic risks are more widespread than previously recognized, particularly during vulnerable periods such as pregnancy and childhood. Protecting against low-level exposure is challenging, however, given that arsenic is a natural element in the Earth's crust and ubiquitous throughout the environment.

Moreover, the evidence for low-dose effects is controversial. One view holds that arsenic has a dose threshold below which exposures aren't harmful. But controversial studies in the peer-reviewed literature increasingly suggest this threshold may not exist, so that any exposure—no matter how small—could boost risks for diabetes, heart disease, immunological problems, and cancer.

The disagreement is a problem for regulators who face mounting pressure to set or reduce standards for arsenic. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is grappling with a revised estimate of arsenic carcinogenicity that, if enacted, would result in unattainable clean-up standards, according to Susan Griffin, a senior toxicologist with the EPA's Region 8 office in Denver, Colorado. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is also under pressure to regulate arsenic in foods, especially rice, which readily absorbs the metal as it grows, making it a top source of dietary exposure.

The focus on rice comes on the heels of a new "action level" of 10 ppb for arsenic in apple juice that was proposed by the FDA in July 2013. This new value, which tightens the agency's previous "level of concern" of 23 ppb (and which has yet to be formally adopted), was motivated in part by mounting publicity over low doses of arsenic in the diet, including media-directed efforts by the public-interest group Consumers Union (CU) to raise awareness on the issue. Growing public scrutiny has put a spotlight on the complex question of how very low arsenic exposures may affect human health.

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