Written by Mervalyn G Oplas


Should Filipinos be scared of buying rice laced with heavy metals?

Study results on the increase of levels of the heavy metals arsenic, cadmium and lead in rice have already alarmed rice eaters around the world just recently.

The arsenic scare that started in November 2012, followed by lead and cadmium in April and May 2013, were attributed to contamination from the environment. These three elements are carcinogens, or can cause cancer.

In the case of the Philippines, no agency  has been tasked to monitor the levels of the heavy metals in rice, said Joy Bartolome Duldulao, chemist and executive assistant of the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice).

The PhilRice website also published Duldulao’s report on arsenic content of Philippine rice in December 2012, which said that local rice stocks are free from arsenic.

But according to Duldulao, the rice samples in his study were collected from only 10 rice producing sites in the country.

“We cannot categorically say that it (Philippine rice) is safe (from arsenic). It might not be true in areas where there are mining and recent volcanic activities,” Duldulao said.

Lead in rice
The lead scare was ignited by a study by Dr. Tsanangurayi Tongesayi, Associate Professor-Analytical and Environment Chemistry at the Monmouth University. It showed that lead levels on US rice imports from Asian and European countries have levels of that heavy metal exceeding between 20 and 40 times the “provisional total tolerable intake” for adults set by the US Food and Drug Administration.

Duldulao said that during the process of the study’s review, it was found that the measurements were made using an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer, an instrument with low accuracy, and which tended to overestimate. Subsequently, the study was withdrawn by the researcher.

After the study on lead levels in rice came out, the Philippine EcoWaste Coalition also did a study on rice sacks. It showed that lead in some rice sacks were exceedingly high, possibly due to the paint used on the labels.

“Though the lead can rub off on the rice, we have to analyze the rice itself,” Duldulao said.

Cadmium in rice
In May 17, 2013, an international global rice website, Oryza.com, published a report saying that the Food and Drug Administration of Guangzhou City in Southern China has found excessive levels of cadmium in about 44.44 percent of rice samples taken from different restaurants and food outlets in the city.

The South China Morning Post website also posted the following day the news about cadmium-contaminated rice samples from Guangzhuo. According to the news item, inspectors from Guangzhuo’s Food and Drug Administration found rice samples that had cadmium levels higher than specified in China’s food safety standards.

On June 2, Agriculture Secretary Proceso J. Alcala said that the 25,000 metric tons (MT) of rice the Philippines is set to import from China will be tested for cadmium content through the customs quarantine process.

“Your red light (that the rice is cadmium-contaminated) is when it came from the Guangzhuo area in China,” Duldulao said.

But he clarified that China rice cannot be generalized as cadmium-contaminated unless it is from Guangzhuo, which suffers from industrial pollution.

The PhilRice chemist said that the Philippines has yet to set allowable levels of these heavy metals in food.

To limit exposure to these toxins from eating rice, Duldulao is recommending the following: 1) Wash rice thoroughly before cooking; 2) Pour off the water after boiling; and 3) Do not restrict your diet to rice. On his last recommendation, he recommends the consumption of other crops that also provide carbohydrates such as corn, sweet potato, potato, squash and banana, among others.

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Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) is a government corporate entity attached to the Department of Agriculture created through Executive Order 1061 on 5 November 1985 (as amended) to help develop high-yielding and cost-reducing technologies so farmers can produce enough rice for all Filipinos.

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Philippine Rice Research Institute