A study released yesterday found over 25 percent of apple juice boxes tested contained concerning levels of arsenic, a heavy metal known to cause various types of cancer.

Florida’s St. Petersburg Times commissioned an independent lab to test several nationally-recognized brands–Motts, Apple & Eve Organics, Walmart’s Great Value, Nestle’s Juicy Juice, Minute Maid, Tree Top, Target’s Market Pantry–as well as a Tampa Bay company that supplies schools in the area.

apple-juice-featured.jpgThe Times reported Monday that samples from three brands–Motts, Apple & Eve Organics, and Walmart’s Great Value label–were found to have arsenic levels above the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) level of concern.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has an established limit for arsenic in drinking water: 10 parts per billion (ppb), the same standard set by the World Health Organization. The FDA does not have a similar limit for fruit juice, but, according to the Times, the agency told fruit juice companies that arsenic levels over 23 parts per billion (ppb) would be at a “level of concern.”

Motts, Apple & Eve Organics, and Walmart’s juice were found to contain between 25 and 35 ppb of arsenic. Juicy Juice, Minute Maid, Tree Top, and Target’s Market Pantry did not surpass the FDA’s so-called “level of concern” for juice, but each surpassed the EPA’s allowable limit for arsenic in drinking water, with 12 to 24 ppb.

Only the Tampa brand, which supplies directly to local schools, was found to have undectable levels of the heavy metal.

Though the study’s findings will likely be alarming to many consumers, especially those with young children, FDA officials are not currently concerned about the public health risk.

“We don’t have any evidence at this point to say that we feel there’s a risk issue that you need to be mindful of,” said P. Michael Bolger, FDA’s chief of chemical hazards assessment, told the Times.

Although arsenic is naturally occuring, prevalent element, and minimal exposure cannot be avoided, there is strong public health evidence that suggests it is a good idea to limit arsenic intake.

How does arsenic get into apple juice?

Because arsenic is found in soil and ground water, there is bound to be trace levels of it in most food and beverage products, but not all of that arsenic is naturally occurring. Arsenic-based herbicides were commonly used in U.S. agricultural production until 1970, when more effective chemicals became available (though the chemical is still used in domestic chicken feed as a growth enhancer).

According to Charles Benbrook, a leading scientist at the Organic Center in Oregon, arsenic-based chemicals are still being used on many apple orchards abroad, and past chemical use on the fields can cause arsenic contamination.

“If the orchard was planted on a field that was treated six or eight or 10 times over the last 30 years, it would build up to a high level,” explained Benbrook.

Over 60 percent of apple juice, made from concentrate, consumed in the U.S. is made from apples grown in China and much of the rest is made from apples grown in Chile, Argentina, and Turkey, according to the Times.

Several leading arsenic scientists believe additional precautions should be taken to minimize arsenic levels in juice, which is widely consumed by young children especially vulnerable to exposure.

“(Juices) ought to meet the drinking water standards,” Allan Smith, director of the Arsenic Health Effects Research Program at the University of California Berkeley told the Times. “If they don’t, that’s where the pressure should go.”

For more information on arsenic exposure, see the Department of Health and Human Services Website.