Arsenic in Apple Juice: Strong Poison or Much Ado About Nothing?

It's the battle of the network talking heads, M.D. division.  In this corner, Dr. Mehmet Oz, host of the Dr. Oz Show on FOX, and former Oprah Winfrey contributor.  In the other corner, Dr. Richard Besser, former head of the Centers for Disease Control and now chief health and medical director of ABC News.  The issue:  is there too much arsenic in apple juice marketed to consumers, including kids? 

Click on the links above to see the positions of the two sides.  Basically, Dr. Oz did a study of apple juice and found elevated levels of arsenic in excess of the amounts the FDA approves for simple bottled water.  Weighing in on the side of Dr. Besser (or perhaps vice versa), though, is the FDA itself, which rather loudly is proclaiming "tosh."  Or, rather, "Apple Juice is Safe to Drink." 

It's hard to wade through the rhetoric here to figure out who's "right", particularly when even Dr. Oz is not recommending anyone give up apple juice because of the risk of arsenic.  The FDA and the manufacturers all dispute both Dr. Oz's test results--they both tested juice from the same batches and came up with significantly lower levels of total arsenic--and criticize him for testing only for total arsenic, instead of distinguishing between inorganic arsenic, which is really bad, and organic arsenic, which the FDA says is generally safe and is ordinarily the kind of arsenic found in apple juice (but not in bottled water).  Dr. Oz's response doesn't seem to be all that persuasive; if the juice doesn't test for too much inorganic arsenic (or too much total arsenic), does it matter that it comes from countries that use arsenic as pesticides?  And arguments about whether apple juice is better for you than eating raw apples are neither made stronger nor weaker if the level of arsenic is insignificant. 

Although known to the ancients as a poison, arsenic has many benign uses, including being used in the first effective treatment of syphillis.  Along with other poisonous chemicals, it was used for centuries in makeup.  The plot of Dorothy L. Sayers novel Strong Poison centers on a murder by arsenic poisoning, where the murderer (SPOILER ALERT!) developed a resistance to arsenic over time, and thus survived while eating the exact meal as his victim.  The story was suggested by the tale of King Mithridates, as A.E. Housman wrote in "A Shropshire Lad,"

They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;

Today, arsenic is used in semiconductors and light-emitting diodes.

It is not for this blog, of course, to weigh in on the actual merits of the controversy.  But we note that comments in the popular media about the safety of food can have a really strong, negative impact on purveyors of food items, whether they are true or not.  A strong debate about food safety is always welcome, but the use of sensationalist headlines and a failure to meet scientific arguments head on can leave misleading impressions that can have really significant impacts on real people.  Stay tuned.