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grain of truth

Are we at risk from metal contamination in rice?


he simple answer to the question posed by the title is no cases of arsenic poisoning have been caused by consumption of because most rice is not dangerous. On closer inspection, contaminated drinking water, not food. though, we nd that some rice-cropping systems are more Cadmium, which chemically mimics the plant micronutrient likely than others to take up metals that are toxic to humans. Such zinc, is less likely to be found in rice grain than in other grains metals may be a natural part of the local environment or present because it is less available to plants under ooded conditions. in industrial pollution. However, because cadmium is very toxic, it is important to monitor Who is most at risk from contaminated rice? Nutritionally any effects that trends in rice production may have on grain decient people are more likely than well-nourished people to cadmium content. In water-scarce areas, for example, water-saving experience harmful effects from eating rice containing higher- irrigation strategies may increase cadmium uptake. Sources of than-average levels of metals. As the most impoverished people cadmium in rice elds include urban sewage sludge applied to are the most likely to be malnourished, they too are the most soil, runoff from mining operations, and, to a much lesser extent, vulnerable. phosphate fertilizer. Which metals are dangerous? The risk of long-term exposure What are scientists doing? Researchers have a four-pronged to low levels of metals is difcult to conrm. All of the potentially approach to minimizing the content of metals in rice grains: toxic metals are naturally present in the environment in trace identifying which geographical areas have elevated risk and amounts and are ingested with food, testing soil and plant samples; identifying water, and air. Human bodies have the the rice varieties that take up the least ability to deal with these background metal or convert the toxin to less toxic The most impoverished levels. The World Health Organization forms when grown in high-risk areas; has established guidelines on allowable developing irrigation, fertilization, and peopleand hence consumption of various toxins. residue management strategies that help How important is food in exposure to minimize metal uptake by plants; and the most likely to be to metals? Some toxic metals, such recommending growth of nonrice crops as chromium, mercury, and lead, are where the risk is too high for rice. malnourishedare considered very low risk as plant food What can farmers do? Farmers contaminants because plants cant absorb who think their farm may be in a highthe most at risk them. Other metals, such as copper and risk category should contact their local zinc, are needed in small quantities by extension ofce and arrange to have soil plants and humans, and become toxic to and grain samples tested. If a contaminant plants before they reach high enough concentrations to be toxic is present, there may be a recommended approach for their area to humans. The metals that pose the biggest risk are those that more suitable varieties or irrigation techniques, for example. chemically mimic plant nutrients and can therefore be absorbed What can policymakers do? As well as determining allowable by plants at high enough concentrations to threaten human levels of contaminants in food, policymakers can implement food consumers. and soil-testing programs in suspected risk areas, monitor land Is rice riskier than other food? Arsenic is of more concern use and cleanup of contaminated sites, and build capacity for in rice than in other grain crops because ooded soil conditions monitoring and solving contamination problems. make arsenate, which mimics the plant nutrient phosphate, more How do I know my rice is safe? Most people are extremely available to plants. However, far more arsenic accumulates in unlikely to consume sufficient contaminated rice to cause leaves than in grain, and experiments have so far failed to measure health problems. The people most at risk are those who live on arsenic concentrations above published safe limits in rice grain, contaminated sites and eat primarily the rice produced on their even in very contaminated soil. own land, those who have additional sources of contamination Sources of arsenic contamination in rice elds include geologic besides rice, and those who are nutritionally decient. Many of soil materials that are naturally high in arsenic, irrigation with these people do not have access to the necessary information. It contaminated water, residual arsenical pesticides used on cotton, is our job to identify and inform them. or application of poultry manure from chickens treated with arsenical antiparasite food additives. In Bangladesh, which has Sarah Johnson is a soil scientist in IRRIs Crop and Environmental widespread geologic arsenic contamination, the many documented Sciences Division. 38
Rice Today July-September 2006

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