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Brussel Sprouts, Beer…and Arsenic?

What you eat and drink may contain arsenic, which is linked to skin, lung, and bladder cancers

Regular consumption of beer and Brussels sprouts has been linked to increased arsenic levels in the body.

Dartmouth researchers analyzed toenail clippings to measure long-term arsenic levels in the body. They found significantly increased exposure in people who regularly consume beer, white wine, Brussel sprouts, and dark meat fish.

We know that we can be exposed to arsenic through the water we drink, especially in regions like New Hampshire where water arsenic concentrations are elevated. Now Dartmouth researchers have found that diet alone can contribute to body arsenic levels (the study was recently published in Nutrition Journal). Exposure to arsenic has been linked to a variety of health problems, including skin, lung and bladder cancers; and vascular diseases and low birth weight.

Four foods found to raise arsenic levels

The researchers looked at 120 foods and found four that significantly increased arsenic levels: beer, white wine, Brussels sprouts and dark-meat fish (including salmon, tuna steaks, mackerel, bluefish, swordfish, and sardines). This study is the first to account for arsenic in drinking and cooking water before looking at dietary contribution.

Toenail clippings help measure long term arsenic exposure

Researchers asked 852 New Hampshire residents, ranging in age from 25 to 74 years, about their average consumption of foods that included dairy, fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat, breads, beverages and baked goods. They then studied the levels of arsenic in their toenails, which show long-term exposure to arsenic

The study found that arsenic in toenail clippings was most strongly linked with consumption of alcohol—especially beer for men and white wine for women—and Brussels sprouts. Regularly eating Brussel sprouts once a week could raise arsenic levels 10 percent higher than levels found in people who never eat them. These findings support recent studies that show that arsenic binds to the sulfur-containing compounds that give Brussels sprouts and related vegetables their characteristic odors.

A few beers daily can increase your arsenic exposure 20 to 30 percent

Men who reported drinking on average two and a half beers had arsenic levels 20 to 30 percent higher than those of men who didn't drink. This may be because alcoholic beverages can have higher arsenic content, and alcohol is known to interfere with the body's ability to detoxify arsenic.

Arsenic in the diet and population health

The study suggests that diet can contribute to total arsenic exposure in populations throughout the United States, regardless of arsenic concentrations in drinking water. Further research is needed to identify patterns of dietary exposure that may pose risk to vulnerable populations like pregnant women and infants.

The study was led by Dartmouth Professor of Biological Sciences Kathryn Cottingham, and included researchers from Dartmouth College, Stony Brook University, University of North Carolina, Dartmouth's Geisel School of Medicine, and University of Missouri. The research was supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Cancer Institute, and Environmental Protection Agency.

December 20, 2013