Dr. Oz and the Arsenic Thing (A Sequel)

Back in September, I wrote an, um, slightly cranky post about Dr. Mehmet Oz’s self-proclaimed expose of arsenic levels in commercially produced apple juice in the United States.

It was but one of many notes in a then ongoing chorus of crankiness. Most of the criticism focused on the point that his test results didn’t differentiate organic arsenic from inorganic arsenic, the latter being about 500 times more poisonous than the former.  Further the FDA had apparently unsuccessfully tried to educate him in this regard, as noted by coverage in places ranging from Forbes, (Dr. Oz Tries to be A Scientist) to Pharyngula (Dr. Oz Goes Too Far).

As I wrote at the time: “In a cranky, reluctant way, if you’re me, you have to kind of admire the way Dr. Oz responded to this concerted hiss of dismay. He continued to maintain that  arsenic exposure should always be considered a big, bad thing. And he managed to suggest that this big picture was more important than nitpicking whining about things like test accuracy and arsenic classification. He did this well enough that, for instance, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, asked the FDA to take another look at arsenic levels in apple juice.”

And what happened with another look? Prompted by the debate, Consumer Reports did its own study and in late November confirmed what Dr. Oz had found – that arsenic levels in apple juice were over all too high.  In fact, 25 percent of the samples tested had arsenic levels above the EPA limit for safe drinking water.  Further, it turned out that while criticizing Dr. Oz’s results, the FDA had failed to publicly release all of its own data, some of which also found uncomfortably high levels.

“Dr. Oz Vindicated” was the headline on a recent story in The Atlantic. Dr. Richard Besser, the medical and health editor of ABC News,  apologized for the earlier criticisms of Dr. Oz and pointedly complained about the FDA’s selective use of data. The FDA announced this week that it would expand its apple juice testing in response to the complaints.

So in this second look, Dr. Oz comes out sounding a lot better than the FDA.

Yes, I still think he would have been more effective if he’d been more meticulous in his testing methods.  Yes, I still wish he’d used the opportunity to educate his audience on the range of arsenic risks. There would have been less backwash and more focus on what may be a very legitimate concern.

But at least he reported his all his results, unlike the FDA which appears to have withheld evidence to strength its side of the argument.  Our government agencies do neither themselves not us any favors when they try to manage reality in this way, and agency’s behavior leaves it open to question to whether its primary concern is protecting consumers or corporations.

It’s not yet clear how much of a health risk exists here; all the levels reported are still relatively low. But it’s also true that arsenic is never a welcome food additive and that chronic exposure is linked to a host of illnesses.

In the end, Dr. Oz forced the government to reconsider the issue, to take a more serious look at arsenic contamination of juice drinks, which are primarily consumed by children. And for that, folks, he deserves a belated and non-cranky chorus of recognition.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
This entry was posted in arsenic, consumer protection, Speakeasy Science and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Dr. Oz and the Arsenic Thing (A Sequel)

  1. John Lowe says:

    Not to be contrary or anything, but I think that before too long we’ll discover that the increased risks from arsenic in apple juice are small, in the larger scheme of environmental health problems.

    Without taking anything away from the risk assessments done by EPA, the levels of exposure in drinking water at which the health effects are known to occur are orders of magnitude greater compared to what’s being found in apple juice. The risk assessments for arsenic extrapolate the known-health-effect levels in a linear manner to the low-level exposure situations (like drinking water or apple juice in the US) because we simply don’t know much of anything about the risks at the lower levels and, in such a case, precaution seems best in assessing the risks.

    However, in transitioning to decision-making, we can still afford to apply some precautions in using the results from those risk assessments.

    Some good is already coming out of this – FDA is increasing the amount of sampling they do. Perhaps the arsenic news will persuade people to moderate consumption of apple juice by themselves and their kids to something more in line with the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations.

  2. Deborah Blum says:

    I agree with you, John. Natural arsenic contamination of drinking water – Bangladesh comes to mind, regions of India and Vietnam, certain parts of the US even – are a known risk and likely to be more significant than the apple juice levels. That was actually one of the points I raised in the original post. But I did want to give Dr. Oz credit here for influencing the discussion – and for not fudging his data.

  3. Gaythia says:

    Certainly an expansion of juice analysis is the correct thing for the FDA to do. I think that it is appropriate to acknowledge the role of Dr. Oz here. It is always deeply disturbing when the federal agencies which need to be proactive in protecting consumers seem to be lagging in their efforts to do so.

    Commercial juice providers are often using multi-source mixtures of juice and concentrates. I believe that we need to know more about soils, irrigation water sources and possible pesticide residues. Food providers should be able to trace their sources. Also, as someone who has operated a hand cider press, I wonder if aggressiveness in mechanized processing might be a factor (cracking seeds, more thoroughly incorporating pulp).

    I have seen the Consumer Reports January 2012 article, and have mixed feeling about some of the messaging that they give here to the public.

    Some of the message is quite good:
    Test your water if on a well.
    Limit children’s juice consumption, which is generally too high already anyway.
    Consider other foods that may give exposure to arsenical pesticides (they cite chicken)

    They also analyzed lead and reviewed data on urinary arsenic in an attempt to correlate elevated levels with juice consumption, which they are careful to qualify by saying that it “suggests” that juices may be a contributing factor to elevated urinary arsenic levels.

    But their table is for total arsenic and the text description “Most of the total arsenic arsenic in our samples was inorganic, our tests showed” is not very informative. And a boldface headline: “Over time, people who ingest even low arsenic levels can become sick” is, in my opinion, way too vague as to possible dosage levels and not necessarily going to lead to an informed risk evaluation as described in John Lowe’s comment above and also in the text of the article. In the text, they mention the outlaw of arsenic preservative in wood formerly used in playgrounds and gardens, but in my opinion, should have said that these still may be present in some yards.

    Parents can react in seemingly strange ways if concerned about these sorts of things. I remember back when Alar pesticide in apples was a concern, another parent assured me that she most certainly had not been giving our toddlers apple juice at her house, but her substitute was sweetened herbal tea.

    In general, children should be getting more water.

  4. Pingback: On arsenic and apple juice: Is the EPA’s drinking water limit even safe? | Body Politic

  5. Pingback: 2011: The Year in Me | Retort

  6. Pingback: Arsenic found in Apple Juice - ◤Water◅Filters▻Blog◢