Where Does the Arsenic in Rice, Mushrooms, and Wine Come From?

What happens when our crops are grown in soil contaminated with arsenic-based pesticides and arsenic drug-laced chicken manure?

When arsenic-containing drugs are fed to chickens, not only does the arsenic grow out into their feathers, which are then fed back to them as a slaughterhouse byproduct, but the arsenic can also get into their tissues and then into our tissues when we eat eggs or meat, a cycle depicted at the start of my video Where Does the Arsenic in Rice, Mushrooms, and Wine Come From?. This explains why national studies have found that those who eat more poultry have tended to have more arsenic flowing through their bodies. Why would the industry do that? In modern poultry farms, often called CAFOs for concentrated animal feeding operations, there can be 200,000 birds under one roof and the floors of these buildings become covered with feces. While this so-called factory farming decreases costs, it also increases the risk of disease. That’s where arsenic-containing drugs and other antibiotic feed additives can come in: to try to cut down the spread of disease in such an unnatural environment. If you’re feeling a little smug because you don’t eat chicken, what do you think happens to the poop?

As depicted at 1:17 in my video, from chicken manure, the arsenic from the drugs in the animal feed can get into our crops, into the air, and into the groundwater, and find its way into our bodies whether we eat meat or not. Yes, but how much arsenic are we really talking about? Well, we raise billions of chickens a year, and, if, historically, the vast majority were fed arsenic, then, if you do the math, we’re talking about dumping a half million pounds of arsenic into the environment every year—much of it onto our crops or shoveled directly into the mouths of other farm animals.

Most of the arsenic in chicken waste is water soluble, so, there are certainly concerns about it seeping into the groundwater. But, if it’s used as a fertilizer, what about our food? Studies on the levels of arsenic in the U.S. food supply dating back to the 1970s identified two foods, fish aside, with the highest levels—chicken and rice—both of which can accumulate arsenic in the same way. Deliver an arsenic-containing drug like roxarsone to chickens, and it ends up in their manure, which ends up in the soil, which ends up in our pilaf. “Rice is [now] the primary source of As [arsenic] exposure in a non seafood diet.”

I was surprised to learn that mushrooms are in the top-five food sources of arsenic, but then it made sense after I found out that poultry litter is commonly used as a starting material to grow mushrooms in the United States. As you can see at 2:58 in my video, over the years, the arsenic content in mushrooms has rivaled arsenic concentration in rice, though people tend to eat more rice than mushrooms on a daily basis. Arsenic levels in mushrooms seemed to be dipping starting about a decade ago, which was confirmed in a 2016 paper that looked at a dozen different types of mushrooms: plain white button mushrooms, cremini, portobello, shiitake, trumpet, oyster, nameko, maitake, alba clamshell, brown clamshell, and chanterelle. Now, mushrooms are only averaging about half the arsenic content as rice, as you can see at 3:37 in my video.

Just like some mushrooms have less arsenic than others, some rice has less. Rice grown in California has 40 percent less arsenic than rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas. Why? Well, arsenic-based pesticides had been used for more than a century on millions of acres of cotton fields, a practice noted to be “dangerous” back in 1927. Arsenic pesticides are now effectively banned, so it’s not simply a matter of buying organic versus conventional rice because millions of pounds of arsenic had been laid down in the soil well before the rice was even planted.

The rice industry is well aware of this. There’s an arsenic-toxicity disorder in rice called “straighthead,” where rice planted in soil too heavily contaminated with arsenic doesn’t grow right. So, instead of choosing cleaner cropland, they just developed arsenic-resistant strains of rice. Now, lots of arsenic can build up in rice without the plant getting hurt. Can the same be said, however, for the rice consumer?

It’s the same story with wine. Arsenic pesticides were used, decade after decade, and even though they’ve since been banned, arsenic can still be sucked up from the soil, leading to “the pervasive presence of arsenic in [American] wine [that] can pose a potential health risk.” Curiously, the researchers sum up their article by saying that “chronic arsenic exposure is known to lower IQ in children,” but if kids are drinking that much wine, arsenic toxicity is probably the least of their worries.

Hold on. Chickens are being fed arsenic-based drugs? See Where Does the Arsenic in Chicken Come From? to find out more.


 I expect the arsenic-in-rice issue brought up a lot of questions, and giving you answers is exactly why I’m here! Check out:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

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Coming Abortion Fight Could Threaten Birth Control, Too

Abortion opponents were among those most excited by the addition of Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. And they had good reason to be.

As a law professor and circuit court judge, Barrett made it clear she is no fan of abortion rights. She is considered likely to vote not only to uphold restrictions on the procedure, but also, possibly, even to overturn the existing national right to abortion under the Supreme Court’s landmark rulings in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey.

Her first opportunity to weigh in could come soon. A Mississippi ban on abortions after 15 weeks — impermissible under existing court precedents — is awaiting review by the justices, who could decide as early as this week to take up the case.

That’s the headline. But many overlook other things that could flow from a new abortion jurisprudence — such as erasing the right to birth control that the court recognized in a 1965 case, Griswold v. Connecticut. During her confirmation hearings, Barrett specifically refused to say whether she felt Griswold was correctly decided.

That was a flashing red warning light for Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, a legal advocacy group that argues cases on abortion and contraception. Roe, said Northup, is part of a century of jurisprudence based on the idea that the Constitution protects the liberty of individuals. “It began with cases about how one educates one’s children, and includes same-sex marriage, contraception and abortion,” she said. “You can’t just take Roe out and not unravel the whole fabric.”

Yet from what Barrett has said and written about the Constitution, continued Northup, “it’s clear she doesn’t believe it protects the right to personal liberty.”

Abortion rights advocates worry that the court could go beyond overturning Roe and Casey. If those precedents are overturned, abortion decisions would return to the states. But the court could go a step further and recognize “fetal personhood,” the idea that a fetus is a person with full constitutional rights from the moment of fertilization. That would create a constitutional bar to abortion, among other things, meaning even the most liberal states could not allow the procedure.

Personhood amendments were on the ballot in several states about a decade ago. They were rejected by voters even in conservative states like Mississippi after opponents argued that recognizing life at fertilization would outlaw not just abortion, without exceptions, but also things like in vitro fertilization and many forms of contraception, including some birth control pills, “morning after” pills, and intrauterine devices (IUDs) that some think could cause very early abortions by preventing a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. (More recent scientific evidence suggests nearly all those methods actually prevent ovulation, not  implantation.)

But an abortion law passed in Georgia in 2019 not only includes a ban on abortion at the point a heartbeat can be detected — often before a woman is aware she is pregnant — but also has a fetal personhood provision. Georgia is appealing a federal district court ruling that struck down the law as a violation of Roe.

Proponents of these personhood provisions are cautiously optimistic. “It looks like there will be a court more friendly to a challenge to Roe,” said Les Riley, interim president of the Personhood Alliance, the group pushing the concept. “But to some extent we’ve been down this road before.”

Previous courts since the early 1990s that were thought poised to overturn Roe did not.

And even if the court were to uphold a law like the Mississippi ban it is considering now, he said, “all that’s saying is they agree that states can regulate or ban abortion at 15 weeks. What we want to do is have the factual reality that life begins at conception recognized in law.”

Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University who has written two books on the abortion battle, said the court wouldn’t have to recognize fetal personhood to threaten many forms of contraception.

States could effectively ban contraception by arguing that some contraceptives act as abortifacients, she said. The court has already opened the door to this argument. In the 2014 Hobby Lobby case, it allowed some companies to decline to offer birth control coverage otherwise required by the Affordable Care Act to their employees. The owners of the companies that brought the suit said they believe some contraceptives are a form of abortion, and the court said the requirement violated their religious freedom. The court used a similar reasoning in a 2020 case exempting the Roman Catholic order Little Sisters of the Poor from even having to sign a paper that would officially exempt them from the ACA contraceptive mandate.

Medical groups and the federal government don’t consider any form of contraception approved by the Food and Drug Administration an abortion equivalent, because the standard medical definition of the start of pregnancy is when a fertilized egg implants in the uterus, not when sperm and egg first unite. Yet the court has not always followed science on the issue.

Still, Ziegler said, “personhood has always been the endgame” for abortion foes, not simply overturning Roe, which would let each state decide whether to outlaw abortion. “Allowing states to leave abortion legal has never been the endgame,” she said.

Interestingly, however, Riley of the Personhood Alliance said that while he hopes his side will win eventually, he is not necessarily hoping that win will come from the Supreme Court.

“We think the strategy has been misguided for years,” he said. “Right now, five justices can overturn anything. That’s not the system of government our founders had in mind.”

Rather, he said, his organization is working more at the state and local level “to lay the groundwork of people’s hearts being changed.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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