It was big news when 'Consumer Reports' and later the FDA announced there were possibly dangerous levels of arsenic in rice and other common foods. According to a recent Dartmouth University study, we may be exposed to arsenic in wine and beer as well.
The study found that people who drank two and half beers or one glass of white wine a day had up to 30 percent more arsenic in their bodies than nondrinkers. This toxic metal builds up in the body and has been linked to several kinds of cancer, cardiovascular problems, and impaired lung function. Although contaminated tap water is the biggest source of dietary arsenic exposure, experts are growing increasingly concerned about how much of this toxin we get from food and other beverages.
It's not entirely clear why these particular beverages were tied to high arsenic levels, but the researchers have a few hunches. "These products themselves may be heavy in arsenic, due to either arsenic in the ingredients or the diatomaceous earth used in their filtering processes," says study author Kathryn Cottingham. "These drinks may also interfere with the processes that remove arsenic from the body."
Besides beer and white wine, the study also linked dark-meat fish such as salmon, swordfish, and tuna – which are also known to carry mercury – to higher arsenic concentrations in toenails. Brussels sprouts ranked high, too, likely because they contain lots of sulfur, says Cottingham. "Arsenic binds to sulfur-containing compounds in plants," she explains.
Although we're exposed to a host of toxic chemicals every day, arsenic is particularly scary. "Arsenic is a well-known carcinogen and has effects on the cardiovascular system and lung function, but because there is no known mechanism, it's hard to determine how low a dose can be tolerated," says Bill Suk, chief of hazardous substances research at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. "We don't know how low a dose is okay, if any level is okay. And since it's a metalloid, arsenic has unique capabilities to bind with other chemicals, creating complex exposures that we know very little about."
So what can you do to avoid adding to your arsenic load? Since tap water remains the most significant source, install a filter, especially if you have well water. "We know from studies that filtering contaminated water does, in fact, work," says Suk. Also mind your diet. "Eat a diverse, healthy diet that does not rely strongly on any one type of food, especially foods known to be high in arsenic," Cottingham says. "I try to limit my consumption of high-arsenic foods to once or twice a week."