Consumer exposure1 to inorganic arsenic in food raises a health concern according to the conclusions of EFSA's latest risk assessment of this contaminant. The finding confirms the outcome of EFSA's previous assessment of the risks linked to the presence of inorganic arsenic in food from 2009.
The European Commission asked EFSA to update its assessment of inorganic arsenic to consider new studies on its toxic effects. EFSA consulted external stakeholders on its draft opinion and considered the numerous comments that were received before it was finalised.
What foods contain inorganic arsenic
Arsenic is a widely-occurring contaminant2 which is present both naturally and as a result of human activity. Arsenic appears in various forms, depending on its chemical structure. EFSA's present opinion focuses on inorganic arsenic.
Food is the main source of exposure to inorganic arsenic for the general population3 in Europe. The main contributors to dietary exposure4 are rice, rice-based products, and grains and grain-based products. Drinking water also contributes to exposure, although levels are usually low in Europe.
Long-term intake5 of inorganic arsenic has been associated with a range of adverse effects on human health, including some forms of cancer. For its assessment, EFSA considered the increased incidence6 of skin cancers associated with inorganic arsenic exposure as the most relevant harmful effect. The experts concluded that ensuring protection against skin cancer will also be protective against other potentially harmful effects.
When assessing genotoxic and carcinogenic substances that are unintentionally present in the food chain, EFSA calculates a margin of exposure (MOE) for consumers. The MOE is a ratio of two factors: the dose7 at which a small but measurable adverse effect is observed, and the level of exposure to a substance for a given population. A low MOE represents a greater risk than a higher MOE.
Based on the available data from human studies, an MOE of 1 or less would correspond to an exposure level to inorganic arsenic that might be associated with an increased risk of skin cancer.
In adults, the MOEs are low – ranging between 2 and 0.4 for average consumers, and between 0.9 and 0.2 for high consumers. Experts concluded that this raises a health concern.
EFSA is also assessing the potential risks linked with exposure to organic arsenic in food. Once this risk assessment8 is completed, the possible risks of combined exposure to organic and inorganic arsenic in food will be assessed.
1. exposure: Concentration or amount of a particular substance that is taken in by an individual, population or ecosystem in a specific frequency over a certain amount of time.
2. contaminant: Any substance occurring in foodstuffs that was not added intentionally. Contaminants can arise from packaging, food processing and transportation, farming practices or the use of animal medicines. The term does not include contamination from insects or rodents.
3. population: Community of humans, animals or plants from the same species.
4. dietary exposure: For the purposes of risk assessment, measurement of the amount of a substance consumed by a person or animal in their diet that is intentionally added or unintentionally present (e.g. a nutrient, additive or pesticide).
5. intake: The amount of a substance (e.g. nutrient or chemical) that is ingested by a person or animal via the diet.
6. incidence: The number of new events occurring within a specified time period within a defined geographical area; for example, the number of flu cases per year in Europe.
7. dose: The total amount of a substance (e.g. a chemical or nutrient) given to, consumed or absorbed by an individual organism, population or ecosystem.
8. risk assessment: A specialised field of applied science that involves reviewing scientific data and studies in order to evaluate risks associated with certain hazards. It involves four steps: hazard identification, hazard characterisation, exposure assessment and risk characterisation.