How much arsenic did you eat today?
Oh, yes, you almost certainly consumed a bit of arsenic at your meals. And it could be increasing your chances of developing cancer – in particular bladder, lung and stomach cancers as well as leukemia and lymphoma.
Here’s what you need to do. . .
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Health experts are beginning to recognize that many of our foods contain harmful amounts of this poisonous mineral. While a small amount of arsenic in our bodies is unavoidable, no amount can really be considered safe.
Close encounters with arsenic of the wrong kind
Arsenic is a natural part of the environment, found in small amounts in soil all over the world. It comes in two different forms — organic and inorganic. (“Organic” as used here is a chemical description; it has nothing to do with organic farm practices.)
Inorganic arsenic is considered the more dangerous form. Organic arsenic is easier for the body to eliminate with no harm done.
Unfortunately, tests show that levels of inorganic arsenic seem to be increasing in a wide range of foods. And it’s showing up in foods that are usually considered healthy.
In the last year or so, the news media made a big story out of high levels of inorganic arsenic in rice. Research at Consumer Reports and other institutions also finds this toxin in fruit juices and vegetables like Brussels’ sprouts.
Bad farming practices have been a problem
The origin of our arsenic problem in the US started when farmers in the early part of the twentieth century began using fertilizers and pesticides that contained arsenic.
Until it was banned in the 1980s, the pesticides containing arsenic were applied to orchards, cotton fields and vineyards throughout North America. But the 1.6 million tons of the stuff applied between 1910 and the 1980s means that these minerals are still in the soil and are often taken in by crops grown today.
Rice isn’t so nice
According to numerous analyses, rice is one of the most heavily arsenic-contaminated foods. This plant is particularly efficient at absorbing arsenic from water and soil and depositing it throughout the plant – including within the grain. This may occur because, unlike other grains, rice fields are frequently flooded, allowing the arsenic to be more easily taken in.
Recent surveys of rice show that much of the rice grown in the U.S. is harvested in Texas, Missouri Mississippi and Louisiana on soil that was previously used to raise cotton. And since those cotton crops had been intensively treated with pesticides that included arsenic (to kill boll weevils), leftover arsenic is being absorbed from the soil by the rice growing today on the same acreage.
Andrew Meharg, a plant and soil scientist at Queen’s University in Northern Ireland, helped write the book Arsenic and Rice. He reports, “Extensive surveys of south central U.S. rice, by more than one research group, have consistently shown that rice from this region is elevated in inorganic arsenic compared to other rice-producing regions.1
Tests by Consumer Reports on rice sold in supermarkets show that both brown and white rice have disturbingly high levels of arsenic. Brown rice contains more than white – perhaps because it undergoes less processing that may remove some arsenic.
What does this mean for your health? Researchers for Consumer Reports reviewed the arsenic levels of more than 3,600 people who were taking part in National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) to see if rice consumption was linked to higher arsenic levels in the body. NHANES consists of data compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics. It includes findings based on physical examinations, personal interviews, blood samples and urine tests.
People who eat rice generally were found to have arsenic levels 44 percent higher than rice-abstainers (based on urine analysis.)
According to Michael Harbut, who heads the environmental cancer program at the Karmonos Institute in Michgan, “Given what we know about the wide range of arsenic exposure sources we have in this country, I suspect there is an awful lot of chronic, low-level arsenic poisoning going on that’s never properly diagnosed.2
Beverages with arsenic
Along with rice, apple juice, beer and wine are also some of the most significant sources of arsenic.
A test of 65 brands of American wines found that all of them contained arsenic.3 The study concludes: “Arsenic levels in American wines exceeded those found in other studies involving water, bottled water, apple juice, apple juice blend, milk, rice syrup, and other beverages.” I guess I’m glad I prefer French wines.
But a glass or two a week probably isn’t a problem. Researcher Denise Wilson says wine alone isn’t a huge risk for arsenic unless you drink way too much wine or overdo other food sources of arsenic.
According to Ms. Wilson, “Unless you are a heavy drinker consuming wine with really high concentrations of arsenic, of which there are only a few, there’s little health threat if that’s the only source of arsenic in your diet…. If you are eating a lot of contaminated rice, organic brown rice syrup, seafood, wine, apple juice — all those heavy contributors to arsenic poisoning — you should be concerned, especially pregnant women, kids and the elderly.”
Wilson’s study did find that wines from Oregon had lower arsenic concentrations than did wines from California, Washington state or New York.
Another worrisome finding comes from a study performed in New England that measured arsenic levels in people’s bodies by analyzing toenail clippings. The study showed that folks who imbibed about one glass of wine a day or several daily beers had more arsenic in their bodies (as measured in their nails) than abstainers. In this study, red wine wasn’t as problematic as white wine.4
Ways to limit your arsenic
There are several ways you can restrict your intake of arsenic in your food:
- Eat less of the foods that have the highest arsenic levels: These include rice, wine and beer, apple and grape juice and cruciferous vegetables (Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower). In the past, chickens have been fed arsenic-containing drugs to help them fight parasites, but these drugs are being phased out so chicken should be safer than it has been.
- If you are preparing rice, you can lower its arsenic content by washing off the raw rice before you cook it. Cook the rice with extra water – use a ratio of 6 parts water to one part rice – and drain off the extra water after it is cooked. Eat more white rice – it generally contains less arsenic than brown rice. My personal solution is to eat few carbs of any kind, including rice.
- When choosing rice, remember that the highest levels of inorganic arsenic (the most dangerous type) have been found in rice from Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Missouri. Safer rice includes white basamati rice from California, Pakistan and India. The US rice used in sushi has also been found to be lower in arsenic.5
- Avoid rice milk, because it has fairly high levels of arsenic. 6And limit foods that are sweetened with rice syrup – they may also contain higher levels of arsenic.
- You also may want to limit your intake of fatty fish like sardines, salmon, swordfish, bluefish tuna steaks and mackerel. The New Hampshire study showed that these can increase your arsenic levels.7
Eat a varied diet
You may have noticed that several foods we think of as healthy — like fatty fish and cruciferous vegetables — have been shown to be potentially significant sources of arsenic. That doesn’t necessarily mean you should give up these foods entirely. But you are better off varying the foods in your diet. Avoid over-reliance on a handful of favorite foods.
In addition, there is evidence that getting enough folate – either in supplements or in foods like spinach, bok choy and romaine lettuce – can help your body eliminate arsenic.8
The research into the effects of arsenic on health and the amounts in our food is still ongoing. As more of these studies are published, I’ll keep you posted.
History’s Most Famous Drug Disaster
Back in the 1950s, a German drug company came up with a drug that was supposed to be ideal for helping pregnant women fight off the nausea of morning sickness.
Unfortunately, it turned out to be a disaster for babies and their mothers, one that resulted in the babies being born with horribly deformed arms and legs.
But eventually, through a series of strange twists and turns, the drug has now become an important platform for designing new ways to fight cancer.
Thalidomide as a cancer treatment? Yes. Keep reading. . .
Continued below. . .
The secret to curing cancer:
In 1921, a British doctor discovered that members of a remote native tribe were almost totally cancer-free. But when members of this tribe move away from their native land and change their diet, they get cancer just like anyone else.
It’s all thanks to a food most of us throw away as waste — a food that’s rich in amygdalin — what most of us call Laetrile.
Click here now and watch a video presentation about this cancer breakthrough. One cancer expert calls this overlooked food “the key to curing AND preventing cancer” — and you can benefit now — without going to a doctor or buying expensive supplements.
This little throwaway food tastes great. Bill Clinton, of all people, eats a certain amygdalin-rich food all the time, and so can you. Click here now to watch the video!
Big Pharma blunder
Contrary to what many people think, the drug thalidomide was never approved for sale in the United States when it was introduced in 1957. For once, the FDA’s endless foot-dragging served a good purpose.
But in Europe and in other parts of the world, it was tragically discovered – too late – that the drug was linked to serious birth defects. Unfortunately, that was only after many pregnant women had taken it. It is estimated that before the sales of the drug were halted, up to 10,000 babies were born with serious birth defects because their mothers had taken this drug.
Thalidomide was banned before the damage could get even worse.
The disaster was an excellent lesson (still true today) of the dangers of taking a newly introduced drug. The possibility of unforeseen side effects – as happened with thalidomide – is a frightening reality.
That’s why you should wait a considerable time to see if a new, highly touted drug works as advertised. Otherwise the consequences can be deadly.
But this drug’s story wasn’t over…
What to do with the leftovers?
In the early 1960s, even after distribution of thalidomide was halted, the widespread use of the pharmaceutical meant there were a lot of leftover bottles in pharmacies around the world.
So in Israel, in 1964, Dr. Jacob Sheskin, searching for a way to treat people who were suffering from leprosy, gathered up a dusty bottle of thalidomide and began giving it to one of his desperately ill patients.
The leprosy victim saw an almost immediate dramatic improvement after only four doses. And that success set off a series of studies that eventually resulted in thalidomide’s being used to treat other victims of leprosy.
Soon after Dr. Sheskin’s experience with the drug, thalidomide was put into use for other diseases that were similar to leprosy.
Fast forward 30 years. . .
Its success with leprosy put thalidomide back into production. But the drug’s potential link to cancer treatment wasn’t evident until more than 30 years later.
Which takes us to 1998 and Beth Wolmer, a New York City lawyer who was frantically looking for a new treatment for her husband’s multiple myeloma – a type of cancer that affects immune cells called plasma cells that are located in bone.
Mrs. Wolmer had heard that researchers were analyzing several drugs for their potential anti-cancer benefits.
One of the drugs under study was thalidomide. The researchers were conducting lab experiments to see if the drug could be useful for leukemia.
Mrs. Wolmer, whose husband was near death, decided it was worth trying thalidomide to see if it could help his multiple myeloma.
She must have been a very persuasive lawyer. She convinced the researchers to let doctors give thalidomide to her husband even though no one had ever taken it for cancer.
But the drug failed and didn’t save his life. Frankly, I wouldn’t have done this. I regard it as a crazy gamble. There are plenty of proven alternative treatments and no need to try an unproven drug. But obviously Mrs. Wolmer had a different take. And in the long run it turned out her intuition, or whatever it was, was sound.
Even though it didn’t work for Mr. Wolmer, his wife’s persistence put the idea into the researchers’ heads that they should give it to other people with multiple myeloma.
As a result, tests at the University of Arkansas showed, in fact, that thalidomide helped improve one out of three people who had this deadly type of cancer. In the initial study, along with improvements in the conditions of two-thirds of the subjects, two out of the 84 patients who took thalidomide went from being hopelessly sick into what was apparently total remission.1
Which was a much better result than any other conventional therapy that had been tried out for multiple myeloma.
Treatment for cancer
After that study, the drug became a central part of the standard treatment for multiple myeloma – even though no one understood why the drug helps fight the disease.
But recently researchers are finally starting to understand how thalidomide affects cancer cells.
“What makes the story (of thalidomide) really bizarre, at least from a chemical biologist’s perspective, is that this is a compound that was made (by the original drug company) in the sense of ‘let’s put this in the body and maybe it’ll do something,’” says Joshiawa Paulk, who is with the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. “But it ends up being this huge platform for designing, and it’s actually changing the way that we think about how to target things in cancer.”2
Paulk’s work on thalidomide is one of a number of studies demonstrating particular actions of the drug that help it act as an anti-cancer treatment.
Research now shows that thalidomide affects the behavior of cereblon, a substance in human cells that acts as a type of garbage disposal, chewing up and eliminating unwanted proteins. Only, in the case of mutliple myeloma, when cereblon encounters thalidomide, it can target and destroy proteins that the cancer cells must have in order to multiply and reproduce.3
The studies at Dana Farber are now looking to combine thalidomide (and thalidomide derivatives) with substances that are effective at destroying other types of cancer besides multiple myeloma.4
An advantage of thalidomide, according to researchers, is that by allowing anti-cancer drugs to totally eliminate (not just incapacitate) certain proteins needed by tumor cells, it drastically reduces the possibility that the cancers can become drug resistant.
Tests of thalidomide are now focused on its use against lung cancer.
Going for the gold
So, despite the tragedy that accompanied thalidomide’s introduction in the 1950s, it has helped many multiple myeloma victims during the past decade. From what I can learn, it’s pretty safe – certainly compared to chemotherapy drugs. Apparently the most dangerous side effect is the formation of blood clots in some people.
Meanwhile, the lesson for Big Pharma is that you should be careful when you accept ideas from lawyers.
Beth Wolmer, who is now Beth Jacobson, has decided that since using thalidomide to fight cancer was her idea, the drug company Calgene, which today sells versions of thalidomide for treating multiple myeloma, should pay her a hefty royalty.
Turns out that sales of the drugs are now a $2 billion a year business. And Jacobson is suing for upwards of $300 million.
Calgene, of course, doesn’t want to share the money and is fighting her in court. On the face of it, I don’t think she has a case. But you never know what the courts will do.
Meanwhile, research into thalidomide goes on – Scientists at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in New York have found that the drug may also help treat sickle cell anemia, which affects millions of people, by improving the hemoglobin in the blood.5
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