Are You Serving Your Infant Arsenic-Laced Rice?

A new study suggests infants who eat cereal and other products made of rice have higher levels of urinary arsenic. Lucas Jackson?REUTER

Rice cereal is one of the first solid foods an infant tries, because the bland mush is easy on digestion. However, parents may want to be cautious about how much rice ends up in their kid's diet.

A study published April 25 in JAMA Pediatrics found infants who ate rice and rice-based products had significantly higher urinary inorganic arsenic concentrations than those who didn't eat any foods that contain the grain. Inorganic arsenic, or arsenic in which no carbon is present in the compound, is highly toxic. It's on the World Health Organization's known carcinogen list, and high exposure is dangerous, especially for developing infants. In particular, research suggests inorganic arsenic can have a neurotoxic effect and is harmful to the immune system.

Studies find infant rice cereal can contain levels of inorganic arsenic at approximately 200 nanograms per gram of food, which is twice the amount recommended by WHO and allowed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In the U.S., rice is the largest source of human exposure to arsenic.

For the study, researchers analyzed data on 759 infants that were part of the New Hampshire Birth Cohort Study that took place between 2011 and 2014. At the start of the study, the researchers asked parents to keep a food diary, and checked in with the families every four months. When the infants turned 1 year old, the researchers assessed their dietary patterns. In particular, the researchers asked parents how much rice and rice-based food they fed their infant, including rice cereal, snacks made of rice, and snacks that contained brown rice syrup (used as a sweetener).

They found that 80 percent of the infants were introduced to rice cereal in the first year of life, and 64 percent of began eating rice cereal starting at 4 to 6 months. At the year mark, 43 percent had eaten rice cereal or some type of rice product the previous week.

The researchers also analyzed urine samples taken from the infants beginning in 2013. In an analysis of 129 urine samples at the 12-month point, the researchers found arsenic levels were significantly higher in infants who consumed rice and other rice-based foods compared with those who didn't eat any of these products. Infants who ate rice cereal had the highest level of urinary inorganic arsenic. On average, levels were 9.53 micrograms per liter in infants who ate rice cereal compared to 2.85 micrograms per liter in infants who didn't eat any rice-based products.

The researchers say there are some limitations to their study. The findings are partially based on self-reported questionnaires, which leave room for inaccuracy. It is also based on a population in New England where there is an unregulated water system. This may mean there's more arsenic in tap water, and, depending on how much water the infants drank, could account for the higher levels in some urine samples. Lastly, the study doesn't account for other common sources of arsenic such as apple juice, which could also elevate urinary arsenic levels.