Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, urged the FDA to set a 3 ppb limit for total arsenic in apple and grape juice.They are advocating for that level, which would then also be used for rice:
Using the 5-ppb [New Jersey] standard in our study, we found that a single serving of some rices could give an average adult almost one and a half times the inorganic arsenic he or she would get from a whole day’s consumption of water, about 1 liter. (CR)Consumer Reports is advocating for a line to be drawn. On one side the product will be "safe" - or - not "troubling," "worrisome," "cause for concern," or "potentially harmful." The question that needs to be asked is what will rice and apple juice that falls on the other side - more than 3 ppb - be called?
That's a question that seems to get brushed aside or, most likely, not even considered. And here is where the ethical considerations of a threshold must be taken into consideration.
The reason that New Jersey decided that 5 ppb was "safe" for their water was because they could not effectively treat the water to anything below that. Remember, their law demands a one in one million risk which means that the water would need to be treated to 0.003 ppb. Not only is that not possible to treat down to, it is also not possible to analyze with any degree of precision and accuracy.
So New Jersey settled on 5 ppb as being reasonably able to attain:
This determination comports with the NJSDWA mandate to establish the MCL at the most protective level within the constraints of medical, scientific and technological feasibility. (NJ)But that threshold is for water. We can "waste" water if it cannot be treated, use it for non-consumption purposes. That treatment option is not available for apple juice and rice that exceeds the threshold of 3 ppb. So what would happen to it? Would it need to be destroyed? And if so, would the "wasting" of that apple juice, or more specifically rice, that contains 4 ppb inorganic arsenic be ethical?
First, let's settle on what I mean by "ethical":
Ethics refers to well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues. (1)The ethical consideration rears its ugly head when you draw that line in the sand. If Consumer Reports wants a 3 ppb standard, what will be done with rice and apple juice that is found to contain 4 ppb?
If 3 ppb is "safe" then exceeding that number - appearing on the other side of that line is...what?
- We are not talking about water here. We are talking about a food. You cannot treat rice or apple juice that is found to contain 4 ppb of inorganic arsenic, so what do you do with it?
- Well we could blend it to dilute the total to below the 3 ppb - you know, the solution to pollution is dilution approach. But that assumes that we have the capacity to store and blend this volume.
- We could just dispose of it, but that means that we take that rice out of the food supply thereby denying rice to citizens that can no longer afford it. Economics 101 in play: supply and demand sets the price,
- We stop growing rice and apples in areas where the arsenic shows up in the samples. Sounds good. But you can't just plant an apple tree and start producing apples - it takes a long time to grow.. Nor can you grow rice anywhere - it take access to a lot of water. Besides, look at the numbers for both apple juice and rice. Arsenic is EVERYWHERE and in EVERY sample. It is ubiquitous with these two products because it is an element and it is in the water and soil cycle (see my previous post).
- We could give it to poor people or starving people. That's a better alternative for them. If you are hungry, what difference does it make? And in areas where food is short, those folks will die from starvation long before bladder cancer ever manifests itself.
You see the problem now with a line in the sand? That line had better be bullet-proof or the ethical considerations that will come into play will rear their ugly head. If you say 3 ppb is "safe" then wasting rice and apple juice when it contains 4 ppb will raise the cost of these two items and take them out of being consumed. We can live without apple juice, but rice?
If you say that 4 ppb is not bad enough to waste, then where do you draw the line as to when it must be wasted? And who gets to consume the 4 ppb product? Do wealthy people get to eat the 3 ppb and less while the poor and hungry get the above threshold product? Would that be fair?
Is that ethical? Is that what we ought to do?
What will the rice and apple juice that exceeds the "3 ppb limit" be classified as? Consumer Reports calls rice above 5 ppb "troubling," "worrisome," "cause for concern," or "potentially harmful." If they push for a 3 ppb limit, as they are advocating for apple juice, then how can they justify a 5 ppb limit for rice? Rice will therefore have to also meet the 3 ppb limit per serving to be "safe."
Here is what I want Consumer Reports to respond to:
- What will rice and apple juice be considered if it exceeds the 3 ppb limit they urge the FDA to set?
- What must be done to rice and apple juice that exceeds this threshold of 3 ppb?
- Can rice and apple juice that exceeds 3 ppb be given to starving people and/or the poor, and, if so, how is that ethical?
- If exceeding the threshold is considered "potentially harmful" or to increase risk, how can we ethically allow anyone to consume this rice and apple juice?
It is one or the other, it cannot be both.
So I'll end with this:
If you are going to draw a line in the sand, that line better represent a real risk if you step over it. Does stepping over a 3 ppb limit represent a real risk? Does eating a 1/4 cup serving of rice with 9.6 ppb inorganic arsenic represent a real risk? If it does, then it is "potentially harmful." If it does not, then it is safe.
It cannot be both. This is why we must choose a threshold that represents a real potential for harm. When you do, those ethical considerations become much more manageable when you exceed the threshold. We have an obligation to protect public health. We have an obligation to feed people. We have an obligation to look at the data and make sound decisions when setting a threshold of what is, and is not "safe."
Part 17 - Creating a Needless Concern.