Arsenic and Old Rice

That was a cheesy way to lead off this discussion, but I just love the reference to Arsenic and Old Lace.

It is what we are really worried about, right?
Getting sick from eating a food that contains a poison, like the victims of those creepy old ladies.

Why is there arsenic in rice anyway?

Let’s step back a bit from the ledge and look at the facts about arsenic in rice and our health. At the end is a terrific yellow curry recipe with tomatoes and spinach to enjoy while you mull over your choices.

First there are several forms of arsenic compounds:

Organic– naturally occurring in the soil and water in our growing areas. Not a hazard to our health as long as the quantity is small. Our bodies can clear this type of arsenic without too much trouble as long as the quantity is small.
Inorganic residues of man-made products, mining, smelting- from applications of pesticides and growth promoters.  These sources of arsenic are BAD, these are known human carcinogens.

How do these compounds get into our food?
Volcanic ash can carry deposits airborne during an eruption
Typical weathering of arsenic containing rocks can carry arsenic into the waterways and ground water.

Inorganically-Manufacturing, pesticide application and Mining Byproducts
Smelter dust from copper, gold and lead smelters
Treated wood production up to 2004 used arsenic as a wood preservative
Insecticide on fruit trees and vines
as a growth stimulant for poultry (Roxarsone)
Medicinally-as a stimulant, for psoriasis and in chemotherapy
Warfare defoliant- used extensively in the Vietnam war
Whenever lead is used as a material
Batteries containing lead, semiconductor devices
Weapon production from WW1- yes, that far back.
These uses will lead to groundwater contamination from runoff.
Smoking cigarettes

What happens when we get exposed?
Increases in gastrointestinal inflammation,
increases in vascular inflammation,
liver cell inflammation,
tumor growth- bladder, liver, skin
high cholesterol,
neuropathies-nerve inflammations

How do we know we have a problem?
Blood levels are helpful for an acute exposure but not a good evaluation for chronic.
Urine quantitative evaluation can be helpful for consistent exposure, but inconsistent exposures don’t show up well.
Liver enzymes elevated without other cause might be the first clue of an exposure.

Hair or nail sampling and evaluation are best for chronic exposure testing.

Organic arsenic is only a problem when it gets to be greater than 10 ppb (parts per billion) in one liter of water.
Unless you live near an active volcano or draw your water directly from a runoff source, you should be fine. Check your exposure rate through water testing to verify and filter it if needed.

If you do live downwind from a volcano and you grow food, have your soil tested as well.

Mostly, it’s the inorganic we need to worry about.
If you live within the watershed of
a smelter,
weapon production facility,
apple orchard,
cotton fields
poultry producer,
battery manufacturer,
semiconductor manufacturing facility,
treated wood manufacturer,
or if any of these were in your watershed area as far back as 1914, you should have your water checked.  The arsenic is that persistent.

If you grow your own food, or eat locally, have the soil checked as well. This testing kit would be one way to check.  Look up a professional lab in your area for more information.
Good farmers have this done so they can supplement the fields with needed nutrients.
Phosphates added to arsenic heavy soils can help mitigate the toxic burden.

Check your tap water for arsenic.
Each community water source is required to show arsenic as a proportion of water.
If you draw your water from a well, get it tested yearly at least. Especially if any new manufacturing changes the water table in your community.
The best way to be proactive is to filter your household water through either a whole house filter available from your local plumber or a sink filter like this one.
Remember that most folks will drink from whatever source of water available, so bathroom sinks need filtering too. Consider this if you can’t fit on a filter.

Limit arsenic rich foods-fish and shellfish, leafy greens from contaminated soil, brown rice from contaminated soil.
Foods grown organically are your best choice since the land is certified to not have arsenic compounds applied for at least 3 years prior to becoming an organic farm.

Rice picks up a double whammy when grown on fields that have manufacturing traces.
Rice cultivation is in muddy and flooded fields, exposing the plants to both soil and water contamination.
White rice is naturally lower in arsenic since the arsenic is primarily in the bran coat that is removed while milling.
Carefully consider the origin of your rice if it is a mainstay in your diet.

My family eats Lundberg Rice products, and organically grown Brown Rice Flour from Bob’s Red Mill.

Who should avoid arsenic containing foods:
Pregnant women
If you are thinking of getting pregnant, consider a hair evaluation prior to conceiving. If you hold a toxic burden, you’ll want to be treated before conception for the baby’s sake. Arsenic can lead to neural tube defects.

People with kidney problems

Elimination of Arsenic
Humans excrete arsenic through our urine and feces.
Making sure to drink enough filtered water is primary.
Supporting the kidneys and liver in filtering is secondary.
Your doctor could use glutathione, S-adenosylmethione (SAM), selenium and milk thistle to increase the clearance rate.

eat lots of organically grown spinach,
eat fresh tomatoes- the canned ones don’t help this time
Tumeric has been shown to increase the clearance

If you have organic arsenic in your water, buy a filter and make this curry once or twice a week
Change up the protein and the veggies just keep the spinach, tomatoes and tumeric.

Most of all, more studies need to be run, that show what persistent low dose exposure to arsenic compound do in the human body.
The studies available are not enough for adequate protection from these persistent chemicals.

Yellow Curry with Tomatoes and Spinach
This is one of those recipes with multiple benefits. It is fast, tasty and provides many phytochemicals to assist in detoxification. Make sure to use fresh organic spinach and fresh organic tomatoes.
Serves: 4
  • 3 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 pound organic tofu, cut into one inch cubes
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
  • 2 tablespoons yellow curry powder- I love this recipe for homemade but you can use commercial.
  • additional I teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 1 (14-oz.) can unsweetened coconut milk
  • 1 bunch fresh spinach- washed and cut into small pieces
  • 2 large tomatoes cut into 1 inch cubes
  1. Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat in a large saucepan.
  2. Place the tofu and salt in the pan and cook till until golden brown, turning to allow each side to cook.
  3. Add the onion, garlic and ginger, cook till the onion is wilted and spices are fragrant.
  4. Add the the curry powder and turmeric, continue to cook for a minute.
  5. Add the coconut milk to the saucepan.
  6. Let the curry simmer and thicken for 3 minutes.
  7. Stir in the spinach and tomatoes
  8. Simmer for 5 minutes till the spinach wilts and the tomatoes begin to breakdown.
  9. Serve the curry over basmati rice



Some other writers about Arsenic and Rice.

Gluten-Free Mom


Deborah Blum for Wired

Tom Philpott for Mother Jones

Common Health


  1. says

    An excellent overview.

    What we don’t know is what level of arsenic should be of concern. Obviously, everything in the environment is toxic if consumed at a high enough level—even water.

    I’m not convinced that any particular food (or recipe) will cause an arsenic detoxification, though. Do you have any evidence?

    • says

      Hi Peter,
      Agreed, we just don’t have enough information to know how much of what kind of arsenic would be of concern.
      Funny how we have been using arsenic based pesticides for decades without that research being conducted.
      Till it is, avoiding all sources of inorganic arsenic seems to be the prudent course since avoiding the organic sources is next to impossible.

      Organic arsenic compounds are processed and detoxified by our livers and kidneys.
      This article, talks about the use of glutathione as a reductant. Since Turmeric, fresh tomatoes and fresh spinach have the highest naturally occurring sources of glutathione, the recipe I created reflect that.

  2. says

    Thanks for the great info.
    I just got an allergy blood test back and found out I’m allergic to wheat (but not gluten) and corn. I thought, OMG, I guess I’ll be eating a lot of rice, and then I heard about this! I read that California, Thai and Indian rice is not as arsenic-polluted as rice from Texas, Missouri, and a couple of other US states. I also buy Lundberg Farms’ organic.

    • says

      Hi Adair,
      The rice grown in Texas, Missouri and other southern states seem to be the highest in inorganic arsenic due to pesticide use on cotton formerly grown on those fields.Stick with the California Organics and you should be fine.

  3. says

    This is a great article. Thanks for shedding little more light on the subject. How interesting that white rice would now be the better choice. I understand that inorganic arsenic is what we need to worry about, but can we assume that a rice product labeled “organic” is free from inorganic arsenic? Or when labeled organic, does it just mean no added pesticides, etc., regardless of the “natural” water and soil that its grown in?

    • says

      There is no guarantee that any food is free from inorganic arsenic.
      The inorganic compounds can poison the water and soil for decades after use. That is why learning the source of your food is so important.
      Part of the standards required to get the organic designation is 3 years of no pesticides, herbicides or exfoliants from chemical sources on the land. That is why it is the biggest benefit choosing organics.