Feb 26, 2020

Have you heard of Arsenic? Ok let’s do a quick debrief. Arsenic is a chemical element which occurs in many minerals, usually in combination with sulphur and metals (wiki), but our focus is not on the chemistry lesson but what arsenic does to the human body. It is important to note that rice contains highest quantity of arsenic when compared with the same quantity of different food items, and to imagine that rice is consumed on daily basis by Nigerians who have probably not heard the word ‘arsenic’ before is a scary peek into reality of food and health in Nigeria. Let us break it down.

There is organic arsenic which is found in animal and plant tissues, while the inorganic arsenic (more toxic) is found in rock, soil or dissolved in water.

How does arsenic get into food?

Groundwater that contains high levels of the toxin, water used in food preparation and irrigation gives food crops trace amount of arsenic (south America and Asia majorly), these causes trace amounts of arsenic to be present in nearly all of the foods and beverages we consume, including vegetables, fruits, juices, rice, grains, seafood, meat and wine, it is also important to note that farmers combat pest infestation on their farms with pesticides that contains arsenic component. Trace quantity doesn’t manifest in an adverse way until there is an accumulation to a dangerous level.

Effect of arsenic to human health –

The Food and Drug Administration says that long term exposure to high levels of arsenic is associated with higher rates of cancer, diabetes, skin lesions, vascular and lung diseases. The African communities are still focused on production of food for her people, to shine attention on presence of arsenic in food and put measures to tackle the invasion of this element into the food chain is highlighted in the future possible tense (apologies to my English tutor).

Rice and Arsenic – Rice accumulates more arsenic than other food crops. In fact, it is the single biggest food source of inorganic arsenic, which is the more toxic form.

Paddy rice is particularly susceptible to arsenic contamination, for three reasons:

1.      It is grown in flooded fields (paddy fields) that require high quantities of irrigation water. In many areas, this irrigation water is contaminated with arsenic.

2.     Arsenic may accumulate in the soil of the paddy field, worsening the situation.

3.     Rice absorb more arsenic from soil and water than any other crop.


Steps to reduce arsenic intake –

Arsenic occurs naturally in rocks and soil. Water treatment includes reverse osmosis filters, and distillation but boiling may increase the concentration of arsenic, while chlorination and mechanical filters do not remove it from water.

Due to the fact that deadly source of arsenic intake has been through water; extra attention should be paid to water treatment both in rural and urban communities.

But for you and me in our homes, we can reduce arsenic content in our rice by doing the following:

·        Wash and cook rice with clean (low in arsenic) water

·        Use plenty of water when cooking

·        Avoid rice that is grown during dry season (if possible)

·        Lastly, make sure you add different type of food to your diet, not only does this ensure you have access to all the nutrients, it prevents accumulation of arsenic to dangerous level in the body.

Rice farmers and stakeholders in the rice sector needs to pay extra attention to arsenic build up during the growing process, test kits can be shared to farmers and ministry of health in collaboration with players in food sector should be on the lookout for dangerous level of arsenic in harvested crops and also imported food items.

The purpose of this article is not to discourage the consumption of rice, there is little anyone can do to discourage women folks from cooking party jollof, but extra measures should be taken to ensure reduction in arsenic levels in the rice by following the steps written above. Preventing accumulation of arsenic in your body is better than combating the diseases that may occur if it gets to dangerous level. You’ve been briefed!

Related Posts