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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now, to new data that's raising concerns about arsenic in rice. The research comes from the Food and Drug Administration and a leading consumer group, Consumer Reports. Both studied arsenic levels in hundreds of samples of rice and rice-based foods, including cereals, crackers and rice milk. Based on its findings, Consumer Reports is urging the FDA to set a federal standard to limit arsenic in rice.

NPR health correspondent Allison Aubrey joins us to talk more about the findings. And, Allison, tell us some specifics here. What exactly did they find?

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi, Audie. Well, the testing by both the FDA and Consumer Reports found that there are measurable amounts of arsenic in virtually every rice product they tested. Turns out, rice is really good at absorbing arsenic from the soil it grows in. Some of the arsenic is there naturally and some of it may come from arsenic-based pesticide residues. And the ranges here of arsenic in foods really varied.

For instance, Consumer Reports found that Kellogg's Rice Krispies had about 85 to 90 parts per billion of arsenic; that's for a one-cup serving. And some of the baby rice cereals, such as Gerber and Earth's Best Organic Whole Grain Rice, had traces of arsenic in the 150 to 250 parts per billion range.

CORNISH: So the question I suppose everyone wants answered is, you know, does this matter? I mean can this amount - you said trace amounts - of arsenic be dangerous?

AUBREY: Well, as the U.S. rice growers are quick to point out, there are no documented cases of people getting sick from exposure to arsenic at these levels. But the concern here is really about the long term. Inorganic arsenic is a known carcinogen. And there have been studies in countries, including Chile and Argentina, that have found links between arsenic in drinking water and increased risks of certain cancer, such as lung and bladder cancer.

So, as a result, the U.S. has in place a federal standard for drinking water. Arsenic levels cannot exceed 10 parts per billion in the water. And advocates say, you know, hey, this is what's needed for food, a federal standard. Currently there is no standard in place.

CORNISH: Now, we mentioned the FDA is studying arsenic levels as well, but they're not ready to take action.

AUBREY: They're clearly signaling that they are going to do something here. The struggle is just because there's arsenic in rice, it doesn't mean that it's dangerous. The scientists like to point out, the dose is the poison, and the FDA is saying, Hey, give us time to get more data to try to figure out if the levels here are worrisome or not.

CORNISH: Now, you mentioned that some of the arsenic comes from pesticide residues. Are these actually being applied or used on the rice crops?

AUBREY: No, the pesticides were actually used on cotton crops in the South. And since there's some evidence that the Southern states - Arkansas, Louisiana and Missouri and Texas - produce rice with generally higher levels of total arsenic compared to, say, California, it could be that there is more residue in the soils from former cotton fields.

CORNISH: Lastly, Allison, what should people do, if anything, about what they eat or what they buy?

AUBREY: Well, a lot of rice producers are on top of this issue, as Consumer Reports found. One company in Ohio that makes baby formula, called Nature's One, it's worked with its rice syrup supplier to put in place a filtration system, to basically reduce arsenic. So it's possible that the industry will come up with new ways of limiting arsenic.

But what you can do on your own is this, vary your diet. You know, don't rely exclusively on rice for your grains. And here's another tip: you may be able to cut exposure to inorganic arsenic by using lots and lots of water when you cook your rice. As Consumer Reports recommends, you can use six parts water to one part rice. I know that sounds like a lot, instead of the traditional 2-to-1 ratio. And then you drain off the excess water at the end.

CORNISH: All right. Thank you, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you, Audie.

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