A popular talk show doctor recently had several brands of Apple juice tested and claimed to have found Arsenic. Whereas nobody wants poison in her food, the question of the amount and its relevance is important. First a little background on Arsenic.
One of the first things that come to mind in association with Arsenic is poison. And indeed it is poisonous. It has been used as a pesticide because it is generally poisonous to all forms of life, rats, cockroaches, even some fungi succumb to it. Ironically it is also known to be an essential trace element for some organisms and possibly humans in tiny, tiny amounts.
Arsenic has been known since antiquity and is poisonous to varying degrees depending on its form. As important as the potency of a poison is the amount of the poison. A seventeenth century physician-chemist by the name of Paracelsus famously proclaimed “everything is poisonous, nothing is poisonous, the dose makes the poison”. One example is lima beans which naturally contain toxic cyanide ion, but lima beans aren’t toxic as the dose of cyanide is too small.
Arsenic has historically been a component of intrigue. In 15th century Italy the Borgia family waxed powerful. Lucrezia and Cesare were among the children of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia (who became Pope Alexander VI- obviously things in the church were different in those days!) Lucrezia was said to be a very effective poisoner as she had learned how to concoct lethal Arsenic potions which were undetectable in food or drink.
Napoleon may have been done in by Arsenic, but not by an intentional poisoning. His villa on the island of St Helena had wallpaper colored with Sheele’s Green, a pigment made from Arsenic. In moist air a mold can grow on the wallpaper and convert the Arsenic to a volatile form. It appears at least for Napoleon that not the butler but rather the wallpaper did it. Another Arsenic pigment called Emerald Green may have impaired the health of Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Monet among others.
Some women in the Victorian era would eat small amounts of Arsenic to produce a pale complexion. Tanned skin in those days indicated that one worked in the fields and was therefore of a lower class.
Now back to Apple juice. Any Arsenic in juice is an issue if for no other reason that juice is a mainstay of many children. Two questions come to mind. Where did the arsenic come from and is there enough Arsenic in the right form to be a risk to health?
Generally speaking the Arsenic is coming from the soil in which the fruit is grown. It can be in the soil naturally or due to use of Arsenical pesticides applied to the soil. Lead Arsenate was used in the United States until the seventies. Arsenic is very stable and could persist in soils for many years. Another source may be China, where environmental regulations are lax at best. Over half of the Apple juice sold in the United States now comes from China.
The amount of Arsenic measured recently in some of the juice samples does exceed the World Health Organisation’s suggested limit for safety. However the method of measurement included both toxic inorganic and relatively nontoxic organic Arsenic. When only the toxic form is considered the level appears to be safe. The FDA has been monitoring arsenic in Apple juice for decades and sees no threat to public safety based on these findings.