Discovery of rice as the major dietary source of inorganic arsenic

Research at Aberdeen by Professor Andrew Meharg, supported and being followed up by Professor Adam Price and Dr Gareth Norton, was the first to show that rice constituted the major source of dietary exposure to inorganic arsenic, which is a substance that can cause cancer in humans.

This work identified that the irrigation of paddy rice with arsenic elevated groundwater in Bangladesh and West Bengal, India, might be of concern.

This, and subsequent, research directly led to the European Food Standards Authority undertaking a major review of arsenic in foods. The European Union, the United States and the World Health Organisation lack standards for arsenic in food, but all three are now actively seeking to set standards. Following the Aberdeen studies, the World Health Organisation has also withdrawn its standard for arsenic intake, considering it to be too high. As a direct result of this work, the UK Food Standards Agency issued warnings that children under age 4 should avoid rice milks because of their inorganic arsenic content.

The research in Aberdeen highlighting the scale of arsenic in rice has had real impact on policy concerning what is considered safe levels in food across the developed and developing world. We are continuing to explore ways to mitigate the problem, including the identification of water management practices and genes of rice that will reduce the accumulation of arsenic into the grain

Professor Adam Price

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Key publications

  • Abedin J, Cresser M, Meharg AA, Feldmann J & Cotter-Howells J (2002) Arsenic accumulation and metabolism in rice (Oryza sativa L.). Environmental Science & Technology.36, 962-968.
  • Meharg AA & Rahman Md M (2003) Arsenic contamination of Bangladesh paddy field soils: implications for rice contribution to arsenic consumption. Environmental Science & Technology 37, 229-234.
  • Williams PN, Price AH, Raab A, Hossain SA, Feldmann J & Meharg AA (2005) Variation in arsenic speciation and concentration in paddy rice related to dietary exposure. Environmental Science & Technology 39, 5531-5540.