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Arsenic in apple juice concerns prompt action by FDA

Some tests raise concerns about level of concentration

By Monica Eng, Chicago Tribune reporter

December 2, 2011

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New reports on arsenic in apple juice may leave parents confused about what they should be pouring into their children's glasses.

Although the Food and Drug Administration continues to say it is "confident in the overall safety of apple juice consumed in this country," the agency also recently acknowledged it is considering new policies on arsenic in juice.

In the meantime, some consumer groups are advising parents to dilute their juice, vary the brands they serve and limit children's juice consumption.

Other children's health experts say parents should worry more about juice's impact on childhood obesity than about its arsenic content. Already, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no juice for children younger than 6 months, no more than 4 to 6 ounces a day for kids under 6 and no more than 8 to 12 ounces for older children.

The recent concerns about arsenic arose after consumer groups reported that their testing found levels in apple juice that exceed the FDA standard of 10 parts per billion for bottled water. The agency has no standard for arsenic in apple juice, something the groups would like to change.

The reports have been controversial, in part because arsenic comes in two forms. The inorganic type is harmful, while organic forms are considered relatively harmless.

Pesticides are a source of inorganic arsenic, as is soil and groundwater pollution. But because some arsenic occurs naturally in the environment, it would be nearly impossible to eliminate it from foods completely.

In the case of apple juice, the FDA considers 23 parts per billion of inorganic arsenic to be a "level of concern" that could trigger regulatory action. Samples of apple juice that test above 23 ppb for total arsenic are sent back for retesting to check levels of inorganic arsenic.

Data provided by the FDA show that 6 percent of the 160 samples of apple juice tested from 2005 to 2011 were above 23 ppb for total arsenic. A spokeswoman said results of retesting for inorganic arsenic were "not readily available."

Consumer Reports, the group that reported its testing results this week, said it tested 79 samples of apple juice and nine of grape. No sample exceeded 23 ppb for total arsenic, but nine exceeded 10 ppb for total arsenic, the national standard for bottled water.

The organization's advocacy arm, Consumers Union, and other groups argue that the FDA's level of concern is too lax and that it should set stringent standards for juice based on total arsenic levels.

Consumers Union urged the government to set a level of concern of 3 ppb for total arsenic, a level met by 41 percent of its juice samples.

That standard, the group said, would "better assure that a child … would not exceed his or her daily exposure limit for arsenic based on lung and bladder cancer risks."

The FDA says its level of concern is based on the effects of short-term exposure, not on cancer risk. Its new apple juice assessment "will take cancer outcomes into account," the agency said.

A flurry of interest in the issue was set off this fall when celebrity physician Dr. Mehmet Oz announced on his television show that testing had found high levels of arsenic in samples of apple juice.

The FDA countered at the time that "it would be irresponsible and misleading for 'The Dr. Oz Show' to suggest that the apple juice contains unsafe amounts of arsenic based solely on tests for total arsenic."

But last week, in a letter sent to the show and consumer groups, the FDA acknowledged that a University of Arizona study and its own research has turned up at least nine samples of apple juice in which the predominant arsenic was the inorganic type. Consumer Reports also said "most" of the arsenic found in its study was inorganic.

The FDA is now "seriously considering setting guidance or other level for inorganic arsenic in apple juice," the letter stated.

It also said that at least two types of organic arsenic found in apple juice are considered harmful and that it will count those types along with inorganic arsenic in its continuing evaluations.

This was welcome news to Urvashi Rangan, director of safety and sustainability at Consumer Reports.

"They have certainly done a lot of thinking at the agency since they came out with their statement in September," Rangan said. "We are encouraged by this. And I think they are coming around to acknowledging the fact that this is an issue they need to look at more closely."

The Empire State Consumer Project and Food and Water Watch are joining Consumers Union in the call for stricter standards.

Although recent testing has focused on apple juice, the FDA says it will soon expand its testing to other juices as well. The latest Consumer Reports study found that grape juice actually contained higher levels of arsenic than apple juice.

Pediatricians who specialize in environmental health expressed some concern Thursday over arsenic levels found in juice and sympathized with concerned parents.

"In general we want to reduce kids exposures to anything toxic," said pediatrician Dr. Harvey Karp, who wrote "The Happiest Baby on the Block" and serves on the board of the Environmental Working Group.

But Karp and other child health advocates say juice's sugar content is more alarming.

"Children do not need any juice whatsoever," said Jerome Paulson, who chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics' council on environmental health. "If you look at the nutrition levels on juice and soda, with the exception of some vitamins they are identical. Most parents would not countenance giving their kids soda every day, but they do give them juice every day. Kids need fruits and vegetable, not juice. Don't drink an apple. Eat an apple."

Juice is seen as more risky than raw apples because arsenic can be concentrated in juice.

Another reason for concern about apple juice is the high percentage of imported juice coming into the U.S. food supply. Food and Water Watch estimates that 70 percent of American apple juice came from China by 2009.

The FDA said that in July it "issued an Import Bulletin to significantly increase the number of juice products sampled and analyzed for arsenic under the Toxic Elements program."

meng@tribune.com

Twitter: @monicaeng