Environmental and Health Implications of the Correlation Between Arsenic and Zinc Levels in Rice from an Arsenic-Rich Zone in Cambodia
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Background. In parts of Cambodia, irrigation of rice with groundwater results in arsenic accumulation in soils and rice, leading to health concerns associated with rice consumption. In Bangladesh and China, low zinc levels in rice have been found in regions where arsenic levels in rice are high. Furthermore, there have been claims that zinc deficiency is responsible for stunting of children in Cambodia. There are limited data on zinc in Cambodian rice, but in rural Asia, rice is the major source of zinc.
Objectives. To provide a preliminary evaluation of the zinc content in rice grain in Preak Russey, an area with elevated levels of arsenic. The importance of zinc in rice for infants was also assessed.
Methods. Rice cultivation was evaluated in sixty farms along the Mekong River in Cambodia. Analyses for metals, total arsenic, and arsenic species in the water and rice were conducted at the University of Ottawa, Canada by inductively coupled plasma – mass spectrometry. Analysis of total zinc and arsenic in soils were analyzed in Phnom Penh using X-ray fluorescence spectrometry (XRF). Total zinc in rice was also measured by XRF analysis.
Results. Rice in the Preak Russey area contained zinc with ½ to ¼ of the 1987 Codex standard for rice in Infant Formula. Moreover, our average zinc concentration in rice samples was less than a third that recommended for zinc fortification in rice by the United Nations World Food Programme. There was a significant (α=0.05) negative correlation between the arsenic and zinc content of rice with the lowest zinc levels occurring near the irrigation wells, the source of arsenic. There was a significantly higher content of zinc in rice from farms that fertilized with cow manure.
Conclusions. Handheld XRF spectrometers are useful tools for detection of zinc levels in rice. The potential for zinc deficiency in farmers in areas of Cambodia with arsenic toxicity is high.