Apples, Arsenic & Autism

Just this past Fall, Dr. Oz featured an episode about several brands of apple juice that contained up to 3-1/2 times the amount of arsenic that is considered safe in our drinking water. The Department of Health and Human Services sent investigators from the Food and Drug Administration and responded that the Nestle/Gerber food product that they examined was in the acceptable range.

The FDA chastised the show for “irresponsible and misleading statements.” In another correspondence, the FDA pointed out the difference between the organic and inorganic arsenic forms, only the latter being of concern since it is a known cancer-causing agent.

Consumer Reports joined in the fray, and recently reported high levels of the bad kind of arsenic in 10% of samples, higher-than-acceptable levels of lead in 25% of the products, grape juice containing similar poisons, plus other disturbing findings about toxic exposure. My medical practice has fielded more than a few questions about this controversy. The arsenic comes mostly from the soil, even from ‘organic’ orchards, and even if the poison is no longer used as the local pesticide. For example, one of our patients who had his urine tested after this report did, indeed, have elevated levels of arsenic. However, fortunately, his blood level of this and other toxins was negligible, meaning that his body was detoxifying correctly.

In addition to the inorganic form of arsenic as being a known carcinogen, it also increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. In the practice of developmental medicine, I am concerned about arsenic being related to immunodeficiency because so many of our children with ASD have autoimmune symptoms. Plus, we should be concerned about studies showing the effects of arsenic on intellectual function and psychologic changes in children exposed to the poison.

There does not seem to be any totally safe method for removing arsenic from the body, though proposals for treatment have been offered and DMSA (a chelating agent) has been used when toxic levels are present in the blood. Foods which are rich in sulfur are said to be helpful (I give my patients glutathione – a sulfur containing supplement), as are fiber-rich foods. WebMD offers advice on ways to limit intake here.

All of the above notwithstanding, I am writing this post to offer a different point of view about this issue.

Whenever our government agencies are questioned about safety, why is the usual immediate response “It’s not what you think, everything is OK, don’t worry, we’ve got it covered,” and “You don’t know what you are talking about?”

I am aware that most agency bureaucracies are staffed with underpaid, overworked, and probably well-meaning individuals. So, why not answer Dr. Oz’s report with, “Really? Geez, we need to look into that problem and make sure that the population is safe.” I can’t believe that people wouldn’t be OK with that response. I can’t believe that the first responders would get fired over saying that “they don’t know” if something is true or not, or if they proclaim that a problem “deserves further investigation.”

Confidence in our governmental oversight agencies would only be bolstered if the staff and administrators would demonstrate a healthy skepticism about what is considered “safe”. We are not children who need to hear platitudes and unsubstantiated explanations, let alone reprimands and threats, as the FDA responded in the present case. There are bad medicines, unsafe products, high-risk emissions, and toxins that abound in the air, food and water.

And, that is just from the home-grown stuff! What about the poorly regulated products that arrive from other countries (demonstrating even higher levels of toxins)? The powers-that-be should be setting an example by confirming that they don’t have all of the answers, and that more knowledge is needed.

Finally, we would all do well to monitor the part that we play amplifying this toxic world and our own consumption in such a manufactured environment.

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Brian D. Udell MD
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