New possibilities for arsenic analysis

4.7.2011

<p> <strong>The Chemistry and Toxicology Research Unit of the Finnish Food Safety Authority Evira has developed a new method for separating various arsenic compounds found in rice.</strong> </p>

Using the new method, it is now possible to separate five arsenic compounds commonly found in foodstuffs and determine their levels. The compounds include three organic and two inorganic compounds: arsenic and arsenate.

The two arsenic compounds most likely to present health hazards to humans are inorganic arsenite and arsenate. The analysis method was first developed for rice, because rice is known to have high levels of inorganic arsenic. Inorganic arsenic has been found to cause lung, skin and bladder cancer. According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), consumers that eat large quanitities of foodstuffs with high levels of inorganic arsenic have, as EFSA terms it, "a narrow safety margin".

New method a combination of two instruments

The new method combines a high-performance liquid chromatograph (HPLC) with an inductive coupled plasma mass spectrometer (ICP-MS). Ordinarily, these instruments are used separately in chemical analysis.

The Evira Chemistry and Toxicology Research Unit is the first laboratory in Finland that is capable of determining the inorganic arsenic content in foodstuffs.

Significant variation in the toxicity to humans of chemical elements and their compounds

Arsenic is a semimetal that occurs in low levels in nearly all foods. Foodstuffs commonly contain dozens of different arsenic compounds.

Results of the research on inorganic arsenic levels found in rice on sale in Finland will be published later this year.

Further research needed on the inorganic arsenic content in foods

The European Union has adopted the WHO limit that was set in 1993 for the total permissible concentrations of arsenic in drinking water, 10 µg/l. With respect to foods, no limit for the total permissible concentrations of arsenic or inorganic arsenic exists in European Union regulations at the moment.

According to the experts, including EFSA, more research is needed on inorganic arsenic in foods and consumers' exposure to it. Currently, little research exists on the subject.

Performing a risk analysis on arsenic content and setting limits on inorganic arsenic are not feasible goals unless sufficient research is undertaken on the issue.

Evira to further develop the analysis of inorganic arsenic

Evira is planning to develop a similar method for analysing inorganic arsenic levels in foods other than rice, including fish, shellfish and cereal grains.

Fish and shellfish have relatively high levels of arsenic, but a significant portion of this is in organic form. In addition to rice, other cereal grains, most importantly wheat, have been highlighted recently as a source of inorganic arsenic for humans.

For more information, please contact:
- Head of Chemistry and Toxicology Research Unit, Professor Kimmo Peltonen, tel. 040 500 2614, (On issues related to food safety and arsenic levels in foods)
- Senior Researcher Eija-Riitta Venäläinen, tel. 050 434 8378 (On issues related to the methodology)
- Eeva-Maria Rintala BSc, tel. 040 489 3420

The analysis method was developed as part of Ms. Rintala's BSc thesis.

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