Health for humans, animals & plants

Arsenic intake via food

Arsenic is a common contaminant known for its toxicity. In nature, it occurs as a component of many minerals. Humans release arsenic, for example, through mining, industry, and fossil fuel combustion. In the past, arsenic was also used in the production of pesticides, fertilizers and wood preservatives. These uses are now banned. Through these various pathways, arsenic can enter soil and seawater and thus enter the food chain. The main source of arsenic intake for the general population is food. Inorganic arsenic has been classified as Group 1 "carcinogenic to humans" by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), as an association between a high intake of inorganic arsenic and skin, lung and bladder cancers has been demonstrated. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) established different benchmark doses (BMDL01 values) in the range of 0.3 - 8 μg/kg body weight (bw)/day for risk characterization and calculation of the MOE (Margin of Exposure). The MOE value is the ratio between the dose at which a small but measurable adverse effect can be detected (reference point - BMDL) and the total intake for consumers.

The Austrian Agency for Health and Food Safety (AGES) tested a total of 1080 samples for total arsenic during the period January 2007 - June 2014. However, it is important to differentiate the individual arsenic species, as the different species have different toxicity (inorganic arsenic is more toxic than organic arsenic). For this reason, EFSA (2009) conversion factors were used to convert the levels of total arsenic to levels of inorganic arsenic. Rice (average inorganic arsenic content 101 μg/kg) and algae (1901 μg/kg) were particularly highly contaminated with inorganic arsenic. Regarding the high value for algae, it should be noted that only four algae samples have been tested for arsenic in Austria so far. In the group "fish and seafood" a high average content of total arsenic was measured, but the content of inorganic arsenic is low (31 μg/kg). Intake of inorganic arsenic via various foods was calculated using average levels of inorganic arsenic in foods and average consumption levels of children, women, and men. Rice was identified as the most important intake source of inorganic arsenic for the Austrian population (31% - 36%), followed by the product groups "bread and rolls" and "fruit and fruit products" (10% -15%).

Based on the currently available data, the following exposure estimate for the Austrian population was obtained: on average, children consume 0.15 μg, women 0.16 μg and men 0.13 μg of inorganic arsenic per kg body weight per day. Frequent eaters:inside of rice and "bread and rolls" or rice and "fruit and fruit products" ingest an average of 0.29 μg (children), 0.44 μg (women), and 0.39 μg (men) of inorganic arsenic per bw per day.

Thus, the calculated exposure to inorganic arsenic is in the range of BMDL01 values of 0.3 -8 μg/kg bw/day. Therefore, there is little or no MOE present. EFSA also noted in its 2009 exposure assessment that no or low MOE is present for inorganic arsenic and concluded that "a risk to some consumer:s from ingestion of inorganic arsenic via all foods cannot be excluded." Additional studies of rice-based foods, "cereals and cereal products," "fruits and fruit products," "vegetables and vegetable products," and "milk and milk products" will be conducted in the coming years. In this way, the total intake for the Austrian population can be estimated more precisely.

Last updated: 14.09.2022

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