The VVA Veteran® Online

July/August 2015


In the last issue of The VVA Veteran, Loana Hoylman wrote about the dangers of Agent Blue, the arsenic-based defoliant used during the Vietnam War. Here she writes about the escalating danger of current industrial and agricultural uses of arsenic to Vietnam veterans.

Arsenic is in food and water, wine and glue. According to the group ChemSee, “Arsenic was found in items such as wine, juice, syrup, glues, and pigments. Inorganic arsenic compounds were found in apple juice, orange and grapefruit juice, in vinegars and salad dressings, in milk and dairy products, beef, pork, poultry, and in cereal.” It also is in seafood and mushrooms. 

©Marty BeeArsenic accumulates. We are all vulnerable. But Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Blue are at the highest risk for the cumulative effects of arsenic from cigarettes and food, pesticides and water, grassy yards and golf courses. 

Arsenics such as cacodylic acid have been used agriculturally and industrially since 1910, mostly in the last fifty years. Although arsenic use was curtailed in the 1980s, it was not until 2014 that evidence of environmental poisoning resulted in a more stringent ban.

Arsenic is legal in water up to a certain amount. Organic arsenic is especially common in water around volcanic areas. But agricultural businesses have arsenic compounds running off into soil and water. The same is true for most industrial sites. Commercial buildings that use treated wood, glass factories, and smelters all pollute air, water, and soil with arsenic. The World Health Organization said in 2012 that arsenic-contaminated water is the greatest threat to health in the world. “Long-term exposure to arsenic from drinking water and food can cause cancer and skin lesions,” WHO reported. “It has also been associated with developmental effects, cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity, and diabetes.” 

The food most vulnerable to arsenic is rice. Some of the arsenic is organic, from the soil and water where the rice is grown. A great deal of it is from absorbed pesticides. Anne Banville, a spokesperson and vice president of the USA Rice Federation, says that the health benefits of rice “must be properly weighed against the risks of arsenic exposure, which we believe are minimal.”

Although Banville’s statement is correct, it’s also fatally misleading. The problem with arsenic is that it stays in the system. It accumulates in the body as one consumes contaminated food and comes in contact with a contaminated environment. Accumulation is inevitable.

Rice producers also claim the arsenic is “natural.” But here’s what Consumer Reports has to say: “ ‘Natural’ does not equal safe. Inorganic arsenic is in sixty-five rice products, and can cause bladder, lung, and skin cancer, with the liver, kidney, and prostate now considered potential targets of arsenic-induced cancers.” Arsenic is in rice-based baby cereals, rice snacks, adult cereals, brown rice, and white rice in what Consumer Reports calls “worrisome levels.”

Their article continues: “We recently tested more than two hundred samples of a host of rice products. They included iconic labels and store brands, organic products and conventional ones; some were aimed at the booming gluten-free market.” Brown rice was found to have more arsenic than white rice because arsenic is absorbed from the outside. The bran that’s been removed in the process of producing white rice is ten to twenty times higher in arsenic than the polished grains. According to Consumer Reports, Texas rice is the most heavily contaminated in the United States. Rice from Vietnam, where Agent Blue was sprayed, also is heavily corrupted with arsenic.

Because arsenic accumulates in soil, it also runs off into waterways, especially through animal waste. Animals that drink from and live in this water become contaminated. The plants that grow in this water are poisoned. Fresh-water fish are the most heavily contaminated.  

©Marty Bee60 Minutes recently ran a segment about low-end, inexpensive California wines.  Michael Berg reported that eighty-three types of these wines contained two to five times the legal amount of arsenic. Some don’t even contain real wine. “Two Buck Chuck” and similar cheap wines have what is called “purple goo” in them, a mash of purple grapes riddled with arsenic pesticides and other ingredients mixed with alcohol.

Producers of food or drink containing arsenic, especially organic arsenic, say that the levels in their products are too low to matter. But if you drink water and wine or grape or apple juice, eat any of the many meats or fish containing arsenic, have a side of mushrooms, have rice with that dinner, and have grapes or apples for dessert, you have already ingested more than a little.

Consumers may have some control by managing the food and drink they consume. But they have less control over what is in the environment. If one lives near commercial buildings with CCA-treated wood, a coal ash facility, or even farms, or if one drinks the water in those areas, golfs on pesticide-riddled courses, swims in arsenic-laden waters, or partakes in any of a thousand other activities, then one is overexposed.

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