The Dr. Oz show recently featured a scary show about deadly arsenic in apple juice. On his own web site, he trumpets “Dr. Oz’s Extensive National Investigation,” and claims “After testing dozens of samples from three different cities in America, Dr. Oz discovered that some of the nation’s best known brands of apple juice contain arsenic.”
His show further claimed that based on his independent testing, many brands of apple juice contain well over 10 parts per billion (ppb) of arsenic, which is over the EPA-determined safety threshold for arsenic in water.
Now, I’m no fan of juice. But there’s another side to this story, one that Dr. Oz chose to ignore. He played fast and loose with the guidelines, the testing, and the chemistry.
The EPA’s upper limit of arsenic content in water is 10 ppb. There is no “official” rule for the upper limit for apple juice. However, as the EPA explained to Dr. Oz prior to his airing the show, they do test apple juice regularly, and if any product has more than 23 ppb they do further safety testing. The safety threshold for apple juice is higher because—duh—people consume far less apple juice than water. Fudging the guideline allowed Oz to claim that his testing showed that arsenic levels were above a threshold, but not above the threshold. Of the five brands he tested, only one had a total arsenic level above 23, but four had a level above 10. Now we know why he used the water guideline instead of the apple juice criteria.
What about Oz’s testing? His own web site has posted a letter from the FDA—they retested the same brands of apple juice, and found far lower arsenic levels at reference standard labs. In fact all of the FDA’s testing found total arsenic levels below Oz’s incorrect 10 ppb threshold. The FDA told Oz about his questionable lab results prior to the show running. He chose to ignore their information, and even now his inflammatory “findings” are still featured on his web site. To his credit, Oz does link to the FDA’s letter, but visitors to the site will have to dig to find it.
What about the chemistry itself? Oz again decides to play it loose. Although, to paraphrase Barbie, “Chemistry is hard,” it’s not too difficult to explain the difference between total arsenic and toxic arsenic. Arsenic is a natural element, abundant on earth. It exists in two forms—organic arsenic, which unless consumed in tremendous quantities is non-toxic, and inorganic arsenic. Inorganic arsenic is used in pesticides and industrial chemicals, and it’s poisonous. Oz’s chemical assays measured levels of total arsenic. This isn’t a trivial point. Chloride itself is a toxic gas that will burn your eyes and kill you; combine it with sodium and you get something that makes popcorn taste better. Methanol consumption will leave you blind and dead; ethanol might make you act stupid, but unless you’re driving is generally safe. The anti-vaccine propagandists like to confuse ethyl mercury (non toxic) with methyl mercury (toxic)—the names sound similar, but only the non toxic form was used as a vaccine preservative, and even that use mostly ended about ten years ago. Oz could have used his platform to explain the important difference between organic and inorganic arsenic to reassure his audience, but instead chose fear-mongering. Ratings trump science.
So Oz ignored the established safety guidelines, used a lab that apparently provided inflated results, and combined toxic and non-toxic forms of arsenic to come up with eye-catching results. The FDA told him about these issues prior to his show, and he ran with it anyway. When it comes to medical reporting, this Oz is a lot like another Oz Wizard. He ought to stop the trickery, set the record straight, and stick to the truth.
Roy Benaroch is a pediatrician who blogs at The Pediatric Insider. He is also the author of Solving Health and Behavioral Problems from Birth through Preschool: A Parent’s Guide and A Guide to Getting the Best Health Care for Your Child.