Dan Moore/iStockphoto/Thinkstock
Photo credit: Dan Moore/iStockphoto/Thinkstock

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed a new limit on the amount of arsenic allowed in apple juice and announced it will consider enforcement action against juice makers that exceed the standard.

The FDA's new threshold is pegged at 10 parts per billion (ppb), which is the same as the limit imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for drinking water. Most municipal-water arsenic levels in the United States are well below the federal standard but levels can still vary, depending on factors such as the amount of arsenic occurring in rocks in the area.

This limit is referred to as an "action level" to be taken into account when federal officials consider implementing possible enforcement action. The FDA aims to restrict the number of various cancers, such as those of the lung, bladder, kidney and skin, which may occur in a person's lifetime.

Arsenic can be found naturally in rocks, volcanic eruptions, contamination from mining and ores, as well as in some types of pesticides. There are both inorganic and organic forms of arsenic, but the inorganic one is generally believed to be more dangerous to human health because it raises the risk of cancers, as well as cardiovascular and neurological problems.

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Public comments on the proposed action level will be accepted within 60 days, the agency announced. FDA officials estimate that, based on average levels of juice consumption, there would be about eight extra cancers per million people when the inorganic arsenic levels in juice are 10 parts per billion or below.

The federal agency has been monitoring arsenic in apple juice for almost 20 years, and in 2012 the agency released the results from tests it conducted on 94 samples of retail apple juice. The FDA found that 95 percent of the samples came in under the 10 ppb level for total arsenic and that all of the samples fell below that level for inorganic arsenic.

Michael R. Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods, stated that the sampling confirmed what the agency had already believed and that the levels of inorganic arsenic in apple juice were too low to cause any immediate or short-term health damage to consumers. However, the FDA is proposing an action level for apple juice in order to minimize the risk of the public being exposed to increased levels of inorganic arsenic and to provide guidance for the industry, Taylor explained.

Meanwhile, FDA commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg said that the top priority for the FDA was to protect the safety of the U.S. food supply and take care of U.S. public health. Based on its extensive sampling and analysis of retail apple juice, the FDA can safely conclude that the overall safety of apple juice to both adults and children is adequate, she pointed out.