Every school day across the Tampa Bay area and America, kids leave home with apple juice in their lunch boxes. Their toddler siblings drink it from sippy cups.
The labels look kid-friendly: Motts, Apple & Eve Organics, Tree Top.
But what's inside those boxes may not be completely benign.
Independent testing commissioned by the St. Petersburg Times has found levels of arsenic that have caught the attention of scientists and parents.
More than a quarter of the 18 samples tested by the Times contained between 25 and 35 parts per billion of arsenic — amounts that surpass the Food and Drug Administration's "level of concern" for heavy metals in juices.
Such levels raise the specter of yet another potential hazard in America's global food supply chain. More than 60 percent of the apple juice from concentrate sold in U.S. stores comes from Chinese orchards, and much of the remainder comes from countries such as Chile, Argentina and Turkey. Even American farmers use arsenic-based pesticides, which are viewed by some experts as a possible culprit.
Federal officials said they have found no reason for parents to worry.
"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, the Food and Drug Administration's chief of chemical hazards assessment.
The national firms whose juices were tested stood by the quality of their products, and said they look to the government for advice on contaminants like arsenic.
Still, St. Petersburg parent Lynn Gordon said she was unnerved to discover what she might be feeding her daughter.
"Juice, milk and water, that's what she drinks," Gordon said. "I want to know those three things are safe."
Expectation of safety, but not avoidable
And some of the nation's top arsenic scientists said the arsenic levels found by the Times were worrisome.
"Kids tend to drink a lot of juice, and we tend to give them a lot of juice because we think it's a healthy snack," said Joshua Hamilton, a toxicologist with the federally funded Dartmouth Toxic Metals Research Program. "So there would be some irony if we were then exposing them to higher levels than an adult would get in bottled water, which I think everyone expects to be safe."
Arsenic is a naturally occurring substance, and experts say it can't be entirely avoided in the food and water supply.
It also has been proved to cause cancer when consumed at high levels in drinking water over a lifetime, and has been linked at lower levels to diabetes, organ damage and hormone system changes.
In 2006, the federal government lowered the limit for arsenic in drinking water from 50 ppb to 10 ppb. The FDA has established no such limit for fruit juices, but has told companies it views 23 ppb as a "level of concern."
Arsenic levels in juice shouldn't be compared with the drinking water limit, the FDA says, since the latter assumes a lifetime of exposure, and most children consume far less juice. Others argue it's a reasonable comparison.
The Times tested two samples from each of eight national brands, plus two samples from a local company that supplies public schools throughout the Tampa Bay region.
Samples from three brands — Motts, Apple & Eve Organics, and Walmart's Great Value label — contained between 25 and 35 ppb of arsenic, above the FDA's level of concern.
The brands Nestle's Juicy Juice, Minute Maid, Tree Top and Target's Market Pantry contained between 12 and 24 ppb. One sample of Walmart's juice contained no arsenic, and one Nestle's sample tested at nearly undetectable levels.
A recent University of Arizona study found similar results, with nine out of 10 samples of apple and grape juice containing 10 to 47 ppb of arsenic. While some foods contain a harmless, organic form of arsenic, the study said most of the arsenic in juices was of the toxic, inorganic variety.
Only one juice tested by the Times — sold by M&B Products of Tampa and distributed to school lunch programs throughout the region — contained no detectable levels of arsenic in two samples.
Company president Dale McClellan says he aims to keep his juices below the drinking-water limit for arsenic. But the FDA should set a clear standard for juice, he said.
"We're traveling in the dark and we need some guidance," McClellan said.
A diminishing domestic market
There was a time when the 55-year-old McClellan didn't know much about apple juice, international trade, or arsenic.
His office, which sits in a trailer on the farm where he was raised, is loaded with cow paraphernalia — cow pictures, cow dolls, even a clock that moos.
"I'm just a local ham-and- egger," he told a visitor.
Since the late 1980s, when McClellan revived his family's failed dairy business and started selling drinks to local schools and institutions, U.S. apple juice producers have been getting pummeled by cheap imports.
American growers, who made around half of the country's apple juice from concentrate in 1989, today control less than a fifth of the market. China's output for the United States during the same period soared from 10,000 gallons to more than 444 million.
Arsenic-based pesticides are still being used in many of those orchards, said Charles Benbrook, chief scientist at the Organic Center in Enterprise, Ore.
"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," he said.
These days, McClellan gets his apple juice concentrate from China, just like his competitors. But he searches for the best suppliers — ones that guarantee minimal levels of arsenic.
"If some of our customers have fears, we react to that," he said.
Other companies whose juices were tested said they do routine testing, follow the government's advice and monitor international standards.
"They rely on the government and FDA to set those regulations and guidance," said Carol Freysinger, executive director of the Washington-based Juice Products Association.
Coca-Cola said testing sometimes reveals too much arsenic in the juice it gets from suppliers for its Minute Maid brand. "We have occasionally seen samples that exceed the FDA's level of guidance or concern, and those have been rejected," said spokesman Ray Crockett.
Looking for data to set the standards
FDA officials said they have been tracking the issue of arsenic contamination in apple juice since foreign producers began gaining market share.
"It's been a cause for concern to us for around five years," Bolger said.
In 2008, the FDA alerted its border inspectors after Canadian health officials detected high arsenic levels in Chinese pear juice packaged in U.S. factories. Testing showed the juice averaged 28 and 32 ppb for arsenic.
Since then, Bolger said, the FDA has found some apple juice samples with more than 25 ppb of arsenic following increased testing. But the average for those tests was 9 ppb.
More evidence is needed to justify setting limits on arsenic in juice, Bolger said. "We've got to generate the appropriate information, because you can't fly blind," he said. "You have to have some good data to back it up."
No one said they knew of people coming to harm from drinking apple juice.
But several of the nation's top arsenic scientists said the FDA needs to take extra precautions for products like juice, which are marketed largely to children.
"(Juices) ought to meet the drinking water standards, and if they don't, that's where the pressure should go," said Allan Smith, director of the Arsenic Health Effects Research Program at the University of California at Berkeley.
He said at least 1 million Americans drink water from rural wells or taps that exceeds the federal limit. For those people, arsenic in juice just adds to their total exposure. (Tap water in the Tampa Bay area routinely tests far below the federal limit for arsenic.)
Toxicologist Hamilton has spent his career focusing on the potential risks of low-level exposure to arsenic.
He has found that even short-term exposure interferes with hormone systems in laboratory animals, raising the possibility of brain development risks in kids.
"I wouldn't want parents to be overly upset that their children are at risk from having drunk apple juice," said Hamilton, who also serves as chief scientific officer at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass. "But as consumers, I think they should be able to expect that these products have levels of contaminants that are as low as are achievable."
Not all scientists found cause for worry.
Carl Winter, a toxicologist and chief of the FoodSafe Program at the University of California at Davis, said the amounts of arsenic found by the Times in apple juice were minuscule.
"This is a tiny amount of a chemical, it's sort of the tip of a needle in a haystack," he said. "You can find these metals in the environment, and sometimes plants can take them out of the soil and you can find them."
'There's no safe level of arsenic exposure'
But consumer advocates said companies shouldn't wait for the FDA to act and set a limit. They should take steps to lower their arsenic numbers.
"Really, there's no safe level of arsenic exposure for a kid," said Richard Wiles, senior vice president for policy at the Environmental Working Group. "And it certainly shouldn't be in these juices."
Tampa Bay area parents who saw the Times' results said they were surprised to learn of the potential arsenic threat, as well as the fact that most apple juice now comes from overseas.
"I am kind of shocked by this," said parent Darcie Salvant of St. Petersburg. "It's not something we drink every day, but we do drink apple juice."
She said she wouldn't necessarily stop serving it to her 4-year-old daughter, but she would watch to see how companies address the issue.
"I don't know that I would alter my behavior, but I'm going to pay attention," Salvant said.
Parent Lynn Gordon said she would try to find brands that contained less arsenic. "I guess I would want to be informed," she said. "To me, no level of arsenic in juice is safe."
Jessica Passman of St. Petersburg said her children, Destiny, 10, and Kiara, 6, love apple juice and drink two cups of it every day.
"On the weekends they probably get more," Passman said.
She said she understands that arsenic can't be completely eliminated from her kids' diet, and she might not stop serving juice. But she'll do her best to minimize any risks.
"It's like the sun," Passman said. "The sun can be bad for you, too. But you take precautions."
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.