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Video: Rossen Reports: Elevated levels of arsenic found in rice

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TODAY
updated 9/19/2012 7:32:59 AM ET 2012-09-19T11:32:59

A consumer alert for everyone who eats rice or rice products. Is there a dangerous chemical in it that could cause cancer?

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It’s stuff we eat every day: cereal, crackers, even baby food. But now a new test shows these popular rice products contain arsenic, a chemical linked to cancer. Some experts say the levels are troubling, and consumers may be at risk.

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From babies eating rice cereal to kids and their Rice Krispies, whole grain, long grain or plain white, rice is a staple. But a new alert from Consumer Reports found elevated levels of arsenic in rice.

Urshavi Rangan is a scientist who ran the study for Consumer Reports, testing more than 200 samples of the most popular brands. From Uncle Ben's to Goya to Kellogg's to Earth's Best Organic, even Gerber, all had levels of arsenic that she said are worrisome.

“We actually are quite concerned by the findings,” Rangan said. “This isn't a matter of trace amounts. These are moderate to moderately high levels of arsenic.”

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Rangan was especially concerned for kids. “We think children should consume even less because they are more vulnerable to the toxic effects of arsenic,” she said.

While the health effects of arsenic in food are still unknown, researchers say at high levels, arsenic, over time, can cause cancer. “This is a known carcinogen linked to several types of cancer, including lung cancer, skin cancer and bladder cancer," said Keeve Nachman, food safety scientist at Johns Hopkins.

So how does arsenic get into rice in the first place? Arsenic is naturally occurring in the soil. Rice is grown in wet fields, making it easier for rice to absorb the arsenic.

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But levels have climbed over the years, thanks to fertilizers containing arsenic. Still, some public health experts don't believe there's cause for alarm, and the rice industry says its food is safe.

“We have not seen any established health concerns that can be pointed to as a result of people eating rice,” said Anne Banville of the USA Rice Foundation.

“Arsenic has been linked to cancer,” we pointed out. “Now there is no specific study that says arsenic in food will lead to this cancer. Is that something you just want to wait for as a parent?”

“Until there is, they can only go with what they know,” Banville said. “And what we do know is that rice is a nutritious and healthy food.”

Gerber told us it checks for arsenic, and now only uses rice from regions with the lowest levels. The other companies say that while they haven't seen the test results, arsenic is in many foods, and there's no evidence rice is harmful.

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“I think we can agree that rice is a healthy, nutritional source of food, and a lot of people eat it and rely on it,” Rangan said. “I think where we would disagree is that the arsenic levels don't matter.”

Read more investigative journalism from Rossen Reports

The FDA told NBC News that it just tested rice products for arsenic too, and got similar results: elevated levels. But the agency says it's not ready to set regulations yet: More research is needed.

No one is saying “don’t eat rice.” Consumer Reports recommends cutting back and eating it in moderation. If you're a parent like me, serving your baby rice cereal every day, they say make it once a week instead.

Video: Rossen Reports: Elevated levels of arsenic found in rice (on this page)

And experts say you can wash the rice and get rid of some of the arsenic. Soak and rinse it in a bowl of water, and keep doing it until the water is clear.

To read details from the Consumer Reports study and see how your favorite brand of rice tested, click here.

To read statements from food companies in response to this report, click here .

Have an idea for a future edition of Rossen Reports? We want to hear from you! To send us your ideas, click here.

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