BAR HARBOR – Scientists, consumer advocates, health officials, food industry representatives, educators and policy makers are working on a plan to reduce global exposure to arsenic in food and drinking water by half by the year 2020. The detailed plan, developed at the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory’s second annual Human and Environmental Sustainability Summit, will be released later this year.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization have determined that arsenic has the greatest impact on human health of any environmental contaminant. Worldwide, approximately 3 billion people are exposed to arsenic in food and 500 million ingest arsenic in drinking water. In Maine and New Hampshire, as many as 10 percent of private wells exceed recommended arsenic levels.
The 40 summit participants committed to working towards specific goals to reduce exposure to arsenic, build awareness and education, and develop a committed network of stakeholders. Over the next two months, they will develop a consensus statement that conveys why arsenic is a major health problem and what can be done about it. This statement will be used as a platform for action, fundraising and advocacy. Other goals include creating a classroom curriculum about arsenic and developing cost-effective technologies for the identification and reduction of arsenic in drinking water.
“The summit brought together a group of diverse stakeholders who are committed to taking action to reducing arsenic exposure in water and food to improve public health,” says Bruce Stanton, who convened the conference in collaboration with the MDI Biological Laboratory. Stanton is a professor at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, director of Dartmouth’s Center for Environmental Health Sciences and a visiting faculty member at the MDI Biological Laboratory. “I was impressed by the enthusiasm and dedication of all participants and their development of ambitious, but achievable, goals to reduce disease caused by arsenic in the environment.”
The conference was timely, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering establishing limits for arsenic in food products such as fruit juice and rice. At present, China is the only nation to have set limits for arsenic in food.
Conference participants noted that arsenic is deadly at high doses, but chronic exposure to lower levels also poses significant health risks such as increasing the risk of bladder, lung and skin cancer, as well as infertility and possibly diabetes, heart disease and other conditions. A recent study conducted in Maine suggests that chronic exposure to low doses of arsenic in drinking water may lower children’s IQ.