(CBS) Apple juice must meet new arsenic standards proposed by the Food and Drug Administration, the agency said Friday.
The new standards set an "action level" of 10 parts per billion inorganic arsenic found in apple juice. The announcement comes more than a year after concern over the naturally-occurring carcinogen found in apple juice and other products gained national attention following tests conducted on "The Dr. Oz Show."
Arsenic is a semi-metal that's naturally found in soil and minerals. It can get into air, water and the ground from wind-blown dust and runoff.
Prolonged exposure to arsenic has been linked to risk for cancer and skin cancer, but also other health issues including heart disease, diabetes and neurological effects, Dr. Ken Spaeth, director of the Occupational and Environmental Medicine Center at the department of population health at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y., explained to CBSNews.com.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had in place arsenic standards of 10 parts-per-pillion for drinking water, but the same hadn't been true for apple juice. During a Sept. 2011 show, Dr. Mehmet Oz revealed test results that suggested potentially dangerous levels of arsenic in many brands of children's juices.
The FDA fired back at the time that there was "no evidence of any public health risk from drinking these juices." It also conducted its own tests on the same products, and charged the agency found lower total arsenic levels from one of the same juice batches tested on the show. The FDA's tests found 2 to 6 parts per billion of arsenic versus the 36 that Oz's show had claimed.
Medical experts and Juice manufacturers also slammed the reports at the time.
More than one month later, Consumer Reports conducted its own apple juice tests looking for inorganic arsenic in 88 samples. The magazine's testers found arsenic levels exceeding the EPA's 10 parts per billion limit in apple juice, with the top range upwards of 13.9 parts-per-billion. Some grape juices tested even higher.
Consumer Union, the magazine's publisher, at the time called for the arsenic standards to be placed as low as 3 parts-per-billion for apple juice.
Finally in Dec. 2011, Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods, said the agency had stepped up its juice testing and research, and was seriously considering lowering the FDA's so-called "level of concern" for arsenic.
Prior, the FDA had used 23 parts-per-billion as a guide to judge whether a juice could be contaminated.
"We have been studying this issue comprehensively, and based on the agency's data and analytical work, the FDA is confident in the overall safety of apple juice for children and adults," FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said in a July 12, 2013 statement announcing the new standards.
In its decision, the FDA cited research from tests of 94 samples of arsenic in apple juice, that found 95 percent tested below the 10 parts-per-billion standard.
Taylor also emphasized in the statement that the levels of arsenic in apple juice are very low, but the action is being proposed to prevent public exposure to the occasional lots of apple juice that exceed the standards for drinking water.
"This kind of standard is long overdue," says Spaeth. Because developing children are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of arsenic, he called the agency's move a "good start."
"Given how popular a drink it is, I think it makes sense to have a standard for it," he said.
He still thinks an even lower standard is warranted and it would be a worthy goal for the agency in the coming year.
"I think there's real public health benefits to lowering the standard to something as low as feasible," said Spaeth.
For most average children, the amount of apple juice they drink is likely not enough to warrant major concern from parents. Since consumers can't conduct their own arsenic tests, the new standard provides some assurance, according to Spaeth. Still, parents should simply practice moderation with their children.
"If they're not overdoing it or drinking large quantities, its probably not going to be anything to lose sleep over," he said.
Experts have previously noted that another health risk parents should be more concerned about when it comes to giving their kids apple juice are the amounts of sugar and calories found in the products. Experts have said people craving a glass of apple juice should just grab an apple instead, because drinking juice can deliver calories quickly.
The Juice Products Association, a trade group, said in a statement that the FDA's tests validate what the industry has been saying, that apple juice is safe. The association added it plans to carefully evaluate the FDA's proposed standards.
"Apple juice producers, as well as the FDA, want people to know they can be confident that apple juice is safe," Rick Cristol, president of the Juice Products Association, said in the statement. "According to the FDA, 100 percent of the apple juice samples it collected and tested had levels of inorganic arsenic below the proposed 10 ppb limit, reaffirming the safety of apple juice."
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