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Dangerous Lead Levels Found in Imported Rice

(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons)

(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons)

Analysis of imported rice sold in the United States has discovered alarmingly high amounts of lead in the food that is a staple for millions of Americans.

Time reports that Tsanangurayi Tongesayi, a chemistry professor at Monmouth University in New Jersey, reported the results of his research team’s findings at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society.

Tongesayi, whose team analyzed rice imported from various countries in Asia, Europe and South America, found lead levels ranging from six milligrams per kilogram to double that amount. That means that based on average rice consumption, estimated lead exposure among the samples was 30-60 times greater than the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) provisional total tolerable intake (PTTI) levels for children and 20-40 times the limit considered safe for adult consumption.

The BBC reports that some samples exceeded the FDA PTTI by a factor of 120.

“According to the FDA, for chemical toxicants to cause a health effect, they have to be 10 times the PTTI,” Tongesayi told Time. “Our calculated exposure levels were two to 12 times higher than 10 times the PTTI. Meaning, they can cause adverse health effects.”

Tongesayi and other researchers are particularly worried about Asian Americans, who tend to consume the most rice. There is strong concern that young children could be particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can harm mental and physical development and even cause death. In adults, elevated lead levels can cause blood pressure problems, heart disease and calcium deficiency.

“The thing is that rice is becoming a staple food for a larger percentage of the population,” Tongesayi told Time.

Broken down by country, rice from Taiwan and China contained the highest lead levels. Rice from Italy, India, Thailand, Bhutan and the Czech Republic also had lead levels higher than the PTTI.

The US currently imports about 7 percent of its rice.

Tongesayi said that the problem originates from the way rice is grown.

“If you look through the scientific literature, especially on India and China, they irrigate their crops with raw sewage effluent and untreated industrial effluent,” he told the BBC. “Research has been done in those countries, and concerns have been raised because of those practices, but it’s still ongoing.”

“Maybe we need international regulations that will govern production and distribution of food,” Tongesayi said.

FDA spokesman Noah Bartolucci told the BBC that the agency will examine Tongesayi’s findings.

“[The] FDA plans to review the new research on lead levels in imported rice released today,” Bartolucci said.

The latest findings concerning lead in rice come just months after Consumer Reports found that eating rice just once a day can increase the body’s arsenic levels by as much as 44 percent.

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