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Arsenic is an element that occurs naturally in the environment. It has a number of industrial uses. Arsenic can enter the food supply through water, soil or air, and is found at low levels in many types of foods.
Different chemical forms of arsenic are found in foods:
- inorganic arsenic is most common in fruit juice and rice
- organic arsenic is found mainly in fish and shellfish
The concentrations of arsenic in foods sold in Canada are low and have been stable for many years.
Health effects of exposure to arsenic
Arsenic's toxicity depends on its chemical form. Inorganic arsenic is of greater concern to human health than organic forms of arsenic. Long-term exposure (over many years or decades) to very high levels of inorganic arsenic is associated with an increased risk of cancer and other adverse health effects.
Exposure to high levels of inorganic arsenic in utero or during childhood may affect development and increase the risk of cancer in adulthood.
What Health Canada is doing
We take steps to ensure that dietary exposure to arsenic is as low as possible.
Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency monitor the levels of arsenic in foods sold in Canada. The Total Diet Study is an annual Canadian survey that measures chemical contaminants, including arsenic, in foods.
We use these results to:
- assess dietary exposure to arsenic
- update the maximum levels (MLs) for arsenic in foods and establish new MLs, as necessary
We also evaluate new information on the health effects of arsenic, particularly to infants and children.
What you can do
Although the levels of arsenic in foods sold in Canada are generally low, you can reduce your exposure to arsenic from foods.
Follow the advice in Canada's Food Guide to:
- eat a variety of healthy foods each day
- vary the types of whole grain foods in your diet
Cook rice in extra water (6 or more parts water to 1 part rice). Drain the rice before eating and throw out the cooking water.
You can reduce your infant's or young child's exposure to arsenic by following guidelines for infant nutrition:
- offer a variety of nutritious foods
- do not offer rice-based beverage as a main milk alternative to children under 2 years of age
- limit fruit juice for children under 2 years of age
If you choose iron-fortified infant cereal as a first food for your child, offer a variety of grains.
For more information
- List of contaminants and other adulterating substances in foods
- Public involvement and partnerships (Health Canada, Food and Nutrition)
- Arsenic in drinking water
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