In the wide world of environmental toxins, chemicals and contaminants, perhaps the most dastardly team of villains is the heavy metal group. First you’ve got lead, found in old paints, which turned out to cause cancer. Then there’s the mercury found in large fish species which is linked to autism. Finally there’s cadmium, an old disused pesticide that causes kidney and liver damage.
Heavy metals are deadly for your health and they all tend to trigger acne-causing inflammation. As I discussed in my eBook Annihilate Your Acne, it’s important for every acne patient to minimise heavy metal exposure…
…but it’s especially important to avoid arsenic. Why? Because while other heavy metals causes acne largely through indirect means, arsenic has one monstrous power. Arsenic can massively ramp up your skin’s production of keratin and hence, arsenic is a nightmare for blocked pores.
What is arsenic?
Arsenic is a heavy metal that, in the early to mid-twentieth century, was widely used as a pesticide. Specifically, it was used to kill the boll weevil beetle that plagued the cotton fields of the Southern USA. It was used for many years until one day the all-conquering cotton market took a downward turn.
Hence, those fields were passed over to rice farmers, fruit farmers and vegetable farmers. Arsenic was abandoned in the mid-1960s as a pesticide, but substantial residues still remained in the soil…
…and hence, substantial residues of arsenic began to appear in the food grown in those fields. Controversies over arsenic in brown rice, apple and grape juice rage today. Not only that, but residues washed into lakes and rivers, polluting the water and ensuring constant contaminating of groundwater in heavily farmed areas.
Arsenic contamination first sprung into life in the 1960s. For decades, this heavy metal was not regarded as particularly dangerous. But in 2001, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lowered the maximum level of arsenic allowable in drinking water from 50ug/l to 10ug/l, or 10ppb.
Why? Mainly because arsenic is carcinogenic and linked to several types of cancer. Studies in Argentina and Chile, areas why arsenic contamination of groundwater is rampant, revealed that arsenic was strongly linked to lung and bladder cancer. Studies elsewhere find a particularly strong risk of bladder, lung, skin, and kidney cancers.
Not only that, arsenic is linked to mental damage. One 2004 study found that children exposed to 5ppb of arsenic through drinking water per day (lower than the EPA’s limit) have lower IQ scores. Another study from 2011 analysed 300 Texans who were exposed to moderate levels of arsenic from drinking ground water. The subjects had poorer scores in memory, language and other areas of brain function.
Many of us are at risk of these problems. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that up to 56 million Americans across 25 different states drink water with arsenic at unsafe levels. Some heavily hit areas are California, Arkansas and other Southern states. Worldwide, arsenic poisoning is an epidemic in Bangladesh, but Nepal, Mongolia, Chile, and Argentina are also prone to it.
Arsenic – an acne causing nightmare?
Perhaps the most visible effect of arsenic poisoning is its effects on this skin. One classic sign of arsenic toxicity or poisoning are arsenical keratoses. These are dark, unsightly growths of protein on the skin which can ultimately progress to cancer. These marks are running rampant across Bangladesh, the world capital of arsenic poisoning. Ultimately they can progress to tumours and even skin cancer.
Furthermore, arsenic poisoning is also known to cause hyperpigmentation, sores, and more minor blotches. Doctors across Bangladesh who are inspecting villagers to determine the quality for their water often make looking for skin deformities a top priority.
What’s the problem for us acne patients? The problem is that these deformities are all achieved through higher keratin production.
Alongside collagen, keratin is the most important protein in your body for structural purposes. It forms a large percentage of skin, hair and nails. Its main job is to bind skin cells together. While collagen provides the raw materials for building skin, keratin is particularly important for gluing everything together, to keep your skin strong and hardy. In a human being with healthy skin, keratin does exactly that…
…but there’s an unfortunate condition known as hyperkeratosis, where the keratinocytes in your skin produce too much keratin. Healthy skin sheds dead skin cells on a regular basis. Normally, sweat and sebum help to move the cells out of your hair follicles and pores and shed them, where they end up in the environment or sometimes floating around as household dust.
However, when your keratin production is too high these dead skin cells get bound together. They form big clumps of cells in the same way keratin glues healthy cells together. These cells do NOT make it out of your skin; instead they stay in your pores.
More keratin equals more skin cells lodged in your pores. Then when you combine that with high sebum production there’s just one result – the finest ever recipe for clogging your skin pores shut and ultimately causing to acne.
Keratin is a healthy protein, but too much is a nightmare for acne patients.
If you read this website regularly then you’ll know that keeping keratin on a leash is one of the cornerstones of any acne strategy. Vitamin A for example, the famous acne nutrient used in Accutane, helps acne by controlling keratin production (as well as decreasing sebaceous gland activity). The strong powers of zinc are partly due to it inhibiting keratin.
Therefore, the fact that arsenic can increase keratin production makes it the single worst heavy metal around.
Arsenic has been shown to 1) accelerate the activity of keratinocytes, 2) induce the growth factors of keratinocytes, and 3) increase proliferation of keratinocytes. The dreaded arsenic keratoses are little more than a massive overgrowth of keratin confined to one area.
What must an acne patient do?
What you must do is minimise your arsenic intake as much has you can. You don’t have to eliminate all of it, firstly because it’s impossible, but secondly, because low levels of intake are safe for acne.
As we discussed, the allowable quantity in US drinking water is currently 10ppb. The world Health Organisation also has a global 10ppb standard. There’s debate over that at the moment, with many insisting that it’s too strict and others calling for a further reduction. In the opinion of this website, it likely is too low for acne patients; the study above found lowered IQ scores at when children consumed just 5ppb.
Considering that children are growing and smaller by bodyweight, and considering other studies showing less harm from small intakes, I’d conclude that an adult with acne should consume no more than 7ppb per day.
Also important is the difference between organic and non-organic arsenic. Organic arsenic is a mixture of carbon and arsenic and is far safer in the body; for many animals like ducks and horses it’s an essential dietary mineral. You can still overdose but that’s not something an acne patient should be concerned with.
Inorganic arsenic, meanwhile, is 500 times more toxic in the human body than organic arsenic. Inorganic arsenic is the type that’s contaminating rice and apple fields and its inorganic arsenic that can wreck your skin, cause cancer, and lower IQ levels. This is the type the media furores over apple juice are focussing on. Specifically, its arsenic 3 and arsenic 5 that are the big contaminants. Keep that difference in mind…
Arsenic in rice
There’s been a lot of media stories about arsenic contamination in rice recently, and for good reason. It’s by far the biggest dietary source for most people. The panic started when Consumer Reports did an investigation in rice quality back in 2012. They analysed many different brands, rice from different parts of the country, and brown versus white rice. Here’s what they found…
- “In virtually every product tested, we found measurable amounts of total arsenic in its two forms. We found significant levels of inorganic arsenic, which is a carcinogen, in almost every product category, along with organic arsenic, which is less toxic but still of concern.”
U.S. rice consumption averages about 12 grams daily, but Asian Americans average more than 115 grams daily. Hispanic and black consumers also have higher-than-average intakes. A separate study calculated that people who eat more than 115 grams of high-arsenic rice could reach or surpass the drinking water standard of 10ppb per day.
That means that just 58 grams could give you 5ppb of rice, on top of that you’re getting from drinking water. Moreover, Consumer Reports found that 42% of the arsenic in rice was inorganic. Rice eaters were found to have 44% more rice in their bloodstream than non-rice eaters.
How can this be? Well, there’s two big factors behind this contamination…
Firstly, there’s the legacy of arsenic based fertilisers used in cotton fields. Cotton farmers everywhere feared the boll weevil beetle which was notorious for destroying their plants. Arsenic killed it excellently so they blasted their fields with it without mercy.
It happens that a particularly large percentage of rice fields, particularly in the US southern states, are former cotton fields. The rice plants absorb arsenic into their roots and it ends up in the seeds. What’s more, rice plants absorb arsenic particularly well; they accumulate 10 times more than other grains like wheat.
The second issue is the choice of fertiliser by farmers. In 2012 three Arkansas rice farming operations launched lawsuits against drug company Pfizer, Tyson Foods (chicken salesmen), and three Arkansas livestock feeding operations. Why? The rice farmers were furious at the level of rice contamination in their crops, and blamed chicken manure contaminated with arsenic.
Pfizer was the manufacturer of a drug named roxarsone, one of only four arsenic based drugs approved for use in the USA. Roxarsone is fed to chickens and livestock for three reasons: 1) to make the chicken meat look pink and fresh, 2) to prevent an intestinal infection in poultry called coccidiosis, and 3) to massively accelerate their growth. Chickens fed roxarsone become so big they can only walk a few steps without becoming totally exhausted.
That of course, is exactly how the producers like it. In 2007, 70% of US battery produced chickens were fed roxarsone (brand name 3-nitro). As a result, almost all chicken manure sold to farmers as fertiliser nationwide ended up being contaminated with arsenic.
When applied, chicken manure introduces massive quantities of arsenic to fields and it gets sucked up through the roots of the plants once again. That’s why rice farmers were so furious and that’s one reason why despite its usage as a pesticide ending decades ago, the arsenic contamination of rice fields has not decreased at all.
Tyson Foods contested that they discontinued their usage of roxarsone back in 2004. The good news is that today, its manufacturers Fleming Labs and Zoetis have voluntarily suspended usage of roxarsone. Two other arsenic based drugs, carbarsone and arsanilic acid, has also been withdrawn. Chicken are rarely fed arsenic these days…
…but roxarsone was a popular livestock feed since the 1940s. The manure, one of the most popular fertilisers among farmers, has had years to accumulate in soils.
Clean rice is available
I don’t recommend gorging on rice as an acne-clearing strategy anyway. It’s too high in carbohydrates anyway and it’s nutritionally bereft.
With that said, white rice is a good source of starchy carbohydrates if you’re on a mission to get more exercise, because it lacks the lectins and gluten found in other grains like wheat. It’s a very pure carb source. Therefore if you’re a rice fan, Consumer Reports made several interesting observations:
- White rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas, which accounts for 76 percent of US rice production, generally had higher levels of total arsenic and inorganic arsenic in our tests than rice samples from elsewhere. Californian rice was safer by far.
- Within any single brand of rice tested, the average total and inorganic arsenic levels were always higher for brown rice than for white.
- Among all tested rice, the highest inorganic arsenic levels per serving were found in samples of Martin Long Grain Brown rice, followed by Della Basmati Brown, Carolina Whole Grain Brown, Jazzmen Louisiana Aromatic Brown, and Whole Foods’ 365 Everyday Value Long Grain Brown.
- Ready-to-eat cereals also gave CR cause for concern. Barbara’s Brown Rice Crisps had inorganic arsenic levels that ranged from 5.9 to 6.7 micrograms per serving. Kellogg’s Rice Krispies (made with white rice), at 2.3 to 2.7 micrograms, had the lowest levels among the cereals tested.
From that data you have two clear strategies. Firstly, ditch the brown rice! In my eBook we discussed how contrary to popular belief, brown rice is actually worse for your skin because it still contains natural plant toxins.
White rice may be heavily refined and lacking in magnesium and iron but the toxins are removed with the bran. Brown rice is far higher in arsenic than white because arsenic tends to gather in the bran. Always pick white rice, and the same goes for cereals derived from white rice.
Secondly, it’s far smarter to buy Californian rice than any other type grown in the USA. Californian basmati white rice contains just 1.3 to 1.6ppb of arsenic per serving. As for international rice, Bangladeshi rice is known to contain 80% inorganic arsenic. However, Indian and Pakistani basmati rice has substantially less.
If you’re going to eat rice, buy it from those two countries. The same goes to Pakistani and Indian brown rice, if you do decide to eat it.
Remember: if you don’t eat rice at all, then you’re acne is far less likely to be caused by arsenic compared to if you do.
Is chicken meat full of arsenic?
Speaking of chicken, arsenic drugs (roxarsone, carbarsone, arsanilic acid) fed to them once made the meat a highly contaminated source. The FDA did tests back in 2011 which revealed very high levels of inorganic arsenic in the livers of barn house chickens.
Like with rice, this sparked a nationwide panic. At first, it seems unbelievable that a drug based around a cancer-causing, brain damaging, skin destroying monstrosity of a metal could have been approved for usage in the first place. Apparently, roxarsone contained mostly organic arsenic and was thus deemed safe. But it later turned out that once starved of oxygen inside the chicken’s bodies, it easily mutated into the inorganic form.
Hence, another study on 140 chicken meat samples from 2010 and 2011 found that conventional chicken contained 2ppb of arsenic per serving. Organic chicken contained just 0.5ppb. Ten years ago, chicken was a huge source of arsenic exposure for the average American.
Does this mean you have to forgo the delights of chicken? The good news is – not at all.
As we discussed earlier, after a golden run of nearly seventy years in usage, roxarsone has finally been suspended under threat of legal action by the FDA. Carbarsone and arsanilic acid are also no longer being manufactured.
The only arsenic based agricultural drug still in use is nitarsone, which is fed to turkeys to control a deadly disease called histiamoniasis. Hence, you should avoid non-organic turkeys for the time being. However, even nitarsone is on the way out; the FDA promises to ban it by the end of 2015.
Therefore in a couple of years, you won’t have to worry about arsenic in chicken at all any more. In the European Union, those drugs have always been banned. The only problem is if you live in Latin America. In places like Mexico and Brazil chickens are still fed arsenic like there’s no tomorrow.
In fact, it’s got worse recently because Zoetis and Fleming Labs sold all their remaining roxarsone stocks to Latin American countries. Roxarsone is also used in several other developed countries: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and places like Indonesia and Malaysia.
If you’re in America or Europe though, a formerly substantial source of arsenic will be eliminated very soon.
Note: I don’t recommend that you buy standard CAFO produced chicken for a host of other reasons anyway. You can read about that in my eBook. The gist is that they develop inflammatory infections, and the terrible soy and corn based diet makes the chicken’s fat profile extremely unhealthy.
Arsenic in fruit juice
The second biggest arsenic source after rice products is fruit juice. We’ve discussed this on the website before in this article about apples. The theme is similar to rice – many apple orchards are grown on former cotton fields. It ends up in the plant and thus the apples, and it’s still there once it gets shredded down into juice.
Many fruit juices contain levels of arsenic dangerously close to the 10ppb drinking water limit, but apple juice and grape juice are known to be the worst. Apple juice drinkers, for example, were found by Consumer Reports to have 19% more arsenic in urine samples than those who didn’t drink it.
It’s now known that adults and especially children (who companies market fruit juice towards) get a lot of arsenic exposure through fruit juice. The same may apply to you, so therefore I urge you to take two steps.
Firstly, you should cut down your fruit juice intake anyway. Commercial varieties are all bombshells of sugar, which causes acne by inflaming your body.
Secondly, buy what juice you do consume organically. Before receiving certified organic status, farmers must work on purifying their soils for many years. Thereafter, they’re totally forbidden from using contaminated manures from chicken feed or other artificial pesticides that may contain traces of arsenic. Organic soil generally contains far less heavy metals, whether its arsenic, nickel, or cadmium.
In 2011, Dr Mehmet Oz tested a bunch of apple juice samples on his show and did a big exposé on the arsenic levels. He reported that none of the organic samples contained arsenic above the 10ppb safe limit. It is true that the results were disputed by the FDA because they apparently tested for organic arsenic as well as inorganic. However, even when combining both measures the arsenic levels in organic juice was far lower.
Therefore if you’ve got the money, go organic! Better yet, you could invest in a juicer and make your own fruit juices, which will be more nutritious seeing as they haven’t been kept in storage as concentrate for months.
Going organic will slash your arsenic intake from juice as far as you possibly can. If you only drink fruit juice once a fortnight, then you’ll probably be safe buying the regular version but keep in mind that it will also contain less nutrients and more added sugar.
Arsenic in the water supply
The last undiscussed source is drinking water. Almost everyone in the world will be consuming some arsenic, whether organic or inorganic, from drinking water. It is natural ingredient of the world’s crust, after all.
However there are areas where contamination is far higher, and they include central Argentina, Chile, Bangladesh, Nepal, parts of China, and Mongolia. In the US, California and the southern central states have the highest water arsenic levels. You can check on the internet for the specific quality of the water in your area.
If you avoid arsenic from rice, fruit juice, and chicken if roxarsone isn’t banned in your country, then arsenic in water probably won’t be enough to cause acne. The FDA’s safe limit of 10ppb is a law that water companies must comply with or face penalties. Nevertheless, reducing your exposure is a smart strategy if you live in the aforementioned areas.
What you should do then, is 1) buy glass bottled spring/mineral water. That’s a great option but it’s clearly an expensive one so your second choice is to 2) buy a tap filter. Many are very cheap, yet they still remove tons of harmful pollutants, including arsenic.
You can buy this Instapure Brands Faucet Water Filter for great value, given that it’s a one-time purchase. Other options include osmosis filters or more conveniently, a Brita style filter. With Brita filters you don’t have to fit it into the plumbing; you pour the water in and then let the filter work its magic.
As a side note, US tap water contains all sorts of other rubbish, like cocaine, rat poison, fluoride, lead, contraceptives, pesticides, herbicides, chemical weapon residues, and heart attack medication. US tap water is some of the worst in the world. It causes so much bodily inflammation that I can’t recommend an acne patient to drink it anyway, so arsenic aside, I’d always recommend you find a cleaner water supply.
Conclusion – say no to arsenic!
What’s interesting is that in 1890s era America, arsenic tablets were a widely favoured treatment for acne. Based on arsenic’s well known ability to enhance keratin production, we can say the proponents of that nonsense were completely misguided.
Here’s what you need to know: low level exposure to arsenic is inevitable in this day and age. Fortunately, an intake below 7ppb per day is safe both for your health and your skin anyway.
However, you do not want to be consuming massive amounts of it. Hence you don’t want to consume massive amounts of contaminated rice, fruit juice and water either. Minimise fruit juice intake, be strategic about your rice, and depending on your location, purchase a water filter or buy spring water.
Don’t get worked up about tiny levels, but keep your arsenic intake as low as you can and your pores will thank you. It won’t cure acne alone but it’s a smart step to take.
Thanks for reading!