Inorganic arsenic is classified as a human carcinogen. On top of this, inorganic arsenic has been linked to various health effects including cardiovascular, neurological, metabolic and respiratory outcomes. Since early life exposure negatively influences lifetime health outcomes, it is the most concerning. The diet is the main source of exposure, especially when drinking water, rice and rice-based products contain a low amount of inorganic arsenic. Rice is widely utilized to feed young children and infants, especially during weaning. Since January 1, 2016, the EU has been regulating the maximum level (0.1 mg/kg) for infant rice products to reduce exposure. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is also considering these regulations.
Only a few alterations were discovered in the inorganic arsenic concentration in infant rice crackers, rice cereals and rice, since the initiation of EU’s new standards. In fact, the infant rice-based products recently tested are very similar to the ones tested in 2014. Three out of four infant rice and rice crackers purchased in the European market and specifically labeled for young children and infants surpassed the inorganic arsenic standard set by the EU, which would be considered illegal.
When the researchers included rice cereals, which has packaging that does not specify if the product is for young children or infants, into the equation, over half of the products examined in this study surpassed the maximum inorganic standard.
Formula fed babies’ urine samples showed a higher arsenic concentration than breastfed and partially breastfed babies. Urine samples were compared among infants before weaning and post-weaning, utilizing rice-based products that were under the EU inorganic arsenic standards as part of the weaning diet. Those infants had a higher arsenic concentration that the other infants that participated in the study.
The previous maximum EU inorganic regulations have done very little to influence inorganic arsenic levels in infant rice-based products, including rice crackers, baby rice and rice cereals. Incorporating these products in the post-weaning diet will increase inorganic arsenic exposure, which could negatively influence lifetime health outcomes.
The findings also revealed that infants being fed non-dairy formula prior to weaning were linked to increased inorganic arsenic exposure, when compared to breastfed infants.
Young children and infants are at the highest risk of inorganic arsenic toxic effects, which means that exposure must be reduced. The researchers note that further studies are required to determine the link between rice-based products dietary arsenic exposure during early life, especially childhood and the lifelong adverse health outcomes. More effort is needed to produce rice-based products and rice with lower inorganic arsenic content, mainly those eaten by young children and infants.
The study was published in PLOS on May 4, 2017.