Science Blog: Do you get too much arsenic from your diet?

In the old days, the Finns enjoyed food grown in their own village fields and slaked their thirst with water from a spring or from a well in their yard. Exported goods such as rice were expensive and few had heard about shrimps or other exotic foods. Now the Finnish diet contains a vast range of exported foods from all over the world. We drink coffee and tea and eat rice and pasta from countries with different regulations on air, soil and water quality and on the use of pesticides and pharmaceuticals. The question is whether this has changed the load of potentially harmful elements and compounds in the diet.

Among other research areas, Geological Survey of Finland (GTK) specialises in studying geochemical levels in soil, bedrock and water. Research has shown that the natural concentrations of arsenic in the environment vary between regions in Finland, depending on the geology. For example, geological units and structures favourable for gold occurrences also often host elevated arsenic concentrations. Anthropogenic arsenic contamination in the Finnish environment is low compared with that in many other regions in the world which makes Finland an excellent place to study natural processes. GTK has conducted studies on natural background levels, transport and mobilisation of arsenic from bedrock and soil to water and crops in Finland in cooperation with other research institutes and universities.

The results of numerous GTK projects, many of them co-funded by the EU, show that the natural environment in Finland is healthy, but with elevated natural concentrations of arsenic in bedrock and soil in some areas. The arsenic levels in spring water and dug well water remain low, with some rare exceptions, but water from deep wells drilled into bedrock may contain excess arsenic in areas with high natural arsenic concentrations in the bedrock. Glacial till may contain elevated arsenic in these areas, but agricultural clayey or sandy soils do not. In addition, plants seem to have processes for rejecting harmful elements and therefore wheat, rye, barley and potatoes remain arsenic-poor.

Agricultural practices themselves may have an impact on the quality of agricultural products. The fertilisers used in Finnish agriculture contain phosphate processed from the Siilinjärvi apatite ore in eastern Finland. The ore does not contain excess arsenic, unlike the guano-based fertiliser from Chile used e.g. in the USA. In addition, some former cotton fields in the USA have been converted to rice fields and these contain arsenic-bearing pesticides inherited from the cultivation of cotton, so US rice may contain elevated levels of arsenic. Rice from many other rice-growing areas, for example in Bangladesh, contain excess arsenic if the rice is grown in water rich in arsenic.

The arsenic status in Finnish agriculture is thus excellent. However, other parts of Europe are not as fortunate, as the average arsenic concentrations in soil and topsoil are higher in Central and Southern Europe than in Northern Europe. There may be geological reasons for this difference between North and South, but another factor is that the anthropogenic load has been different. For example, the arsenic-rich chemical weapons used in World War I contaminated some areas in Belgium and north-east France. A recent project coordinated by GTK and called AgriAs, studied the contamination due to the destruction of ammunition in the agricultural fields of Verdun after World War I. Another study site in the project was Freiberg in Germany, with an 800-year history of mining and heavy arsenic contamination from natural geological background and from the mining waste generated during the processing of ores.

If you want to avoid arsenic in your diet, local or at least Nordic food is perhaps a good choice, since the average levels in agricultural products in Finland are lower than those in many agricultural products from Central and Southern Europe even though the arsenic concentrations in products exported from other countries are below the acceptable levels in regulation. More information on arsenic in food can be found for example from the website of the Finnish Food Authority:

If you drink water from a well drilled into the bedrock in a geological area with a known risk of naturally occurring arsenic, analysing the concentration of arsenic in drinking water is recommended. Data on the arsenic concentrations in soil all over Finland are freely available from the GTK website  Information about the arsenic concentrations in bedrock and soil is summarised in many reports, some of which are listed below.

Summa summarum, arsenic is well under control in drinking water and diet in Finland compared with many other countries in the world.

Websites of selected EU projects:

’AgriAs’ Evaluation and management of arsenic contamination in agricultural soil and water. GTK team: Kirsti Loukola-Ruskeeniemi, Juha Kaija, Timo Tarvainen, Tarja Hatakka.

’ASROCKS’ Guidelines for sustainable exploitation of aggregate resources in areas with elevated arsenic concentrations. ASROCKS received a Best LIFE Project award.

‘RAMAS’ Risk Assessment and Risk Management Procedure for Arsenic in the Tampere Region.

Selected references:

in English:

List of the RAMAS reports including results of arsenic in drinking water and in agro-ecosystems:

Loukola-Ruskeeniemi, K.; Härmä, P.; Kuula, P.; Sorvari, J.; Tarvainen, T. 2014. Layman’s Report of the ASROCKS project, LIFE10ENV/FI/000062, EU’s Life+ Environment Policy and Governance programme. “Guidelines for Sustainable Exploitation of Aggregate Resources in Areas with Elevated Arsenic Concentrations“.

Loukola-Ruskeeniemi, K.; Tanskanen, H.; Lahermo, P., 1999. Anomalously high arsenic concentrations in spring waters in Kittilä, Finnish Lapland. In: Autio, S. (ed.) Geological Survey of Finland, Current Research 1997-1998. Geological Survey of Finland. Special Paper 27, 97-102.

Parviainen, A.; Isosaari, P.; Loukola-Ruskeeniemi, K.; Nieto, J. M.; Gervilla, F. 2012. Occurrence and mobility of As in the Ylöjärvi Cu-W-As mine tailings. Journal of Geochemical Exploration 114, 36-45.

Parviainen, A.; Matthew B.J. Lindsay; R. Pérez-López; B. D. Gibson; C. J. Ptacek; D. W. Blowes; K. Loukola-Ruskeeniemi 2012. Arsenic attenuation in tailings at a former Cu-W-As mine, SW Finland. Applied Geochemistry 27, 2289-2299.

Parviainen, A.; Loukola-Ruskeeniemi, K.; Tarvainen, T.; Hatakka, T.; Härmä, P.; Backman, B.; Ketola, T.; Kuula, P.; Lehtinen, H.; Sorvari, J.; Pyy, O.; Ruskeeniemi, T.; Luoma, S. 2015. Arsenic in bedrock, soil and groundwater – the first arsenic guidelines for aggregate production established in Finland. Earth-Science Reviews 150, 709-723.

Parviainen, A.; Vaajasaari, K.; Loukola-Ruskeeniemi, K.; Kauppila, T.; Bilaletdin, Ä.; Kaipainen, H.; Tammenmaa, J.; Hokkanen, T., 2006. Anthropogenic arsenic sources in the Pirkanmaa region in Finland. Espoo: Geological Survey of Finland. 72 p.

Placencia-Gómez, E.; Parviainen, A.; Hokkanen, T.; Loukola-Ruskeeniemi, K. 2010. Integrated geophysical and geochemical study on AMD generation at the Haveri Au-Cu mine tailings, SW Finland. Environmental Earth Sciences 61 (7), 1435-1447.

Ruskeeniemi, T.; Backman, B.; Loukola-Ruskeeniemi, K.; Sorvari, J.; Lehtinen, H.; Schultz, E.; Mäkelä-Kurtto, R.; Rossi, E.; Vaajasaari, K.; Bilaletdin, Ä. 2011. Arsenic in the Pirkanmaa region, southern Finland: from identification through to risk assessment to risk management. In: Geoscience for society: 125th anniversary volume. Geological Survey of Finland. Special Paper 49. Espoo: Geological Survey of Finland, 213-227.


in Finnish:

Backman, B.; Loukola-Ruskeeniemi, K. 2005. Arseenia kaivoveteen kallioperästä. Ympäristö ja Terveys, 2005. Vol. 36, no 10, s. 66-69. (Arsenic from bedrock to well waters, in Finnish)

Hallanaro, E.-L.; Loukola-Ruskeeniemi, K. 2014. Arseenia kalliossa! ja mitä siitä sitten seuraa… Arsenic in Bedrock! And Then What Happens… Geological Survey of Finland. Erikoisjulkaisut – Special Publications. 107 s. (In Finnish, Abstract in English)

Lehtinen, H. (toim.); Härmä, P.; Tarvainen, T.; Backman, B.; Hatakka, T.; Ketola, T.; Kuula, P.; Luoma, S.; Pyy, O.; Sorvari, O.; Loukola-Ruskeeniemi, K. 2014. Kiviainesten otto arseenialueilla. Opas kiviainesten tuottajille, maarakentajille ja viranomaisille. Exploitation of aggregates in areas with naturally elevated concentrations of arsenic – Guidelines for producers, earthwork contractors, and authorities. Geological Survey of Finland, Opas-Guide 59. 71 s. (in Finnish, summary in English)

Loukola-Ruskeeniemi, K.; Lahermo, P. (Toim.) 2004. Arseeni Suomen luonnossa: ympäristövaikutukset ja riskit Synopsis: Arsenic in Finland: Distribution, Environmental Impacts and Risks. Geological Survey of Finland, Erikoisjulkaisut – Special Publications 45, 176 s. (in Finnish. Synopsis, abstracts, tables and figures in English)

Loukola-Ruskeeniemi, K.; Ruskeeniemi, T.; Parviainen, A.; Backman, B. (Toim.) 2007. Arseeni Pirkanmaalla – esiintyminen, riskinarviointi ja riskinhallinta. RAMAS-hankkeen tärkeimmät tulokset. Arsenic in the Pirkanmaa region in Finland: occurrence in the environment, risk assessment and risk management: final results of the RAMAS project (EU LIFE Environment Programme: Risk Assessment and Risk Management of Arsenic in the Pirkanmaa Region, Finland). Teknillinen korkeakoulu. Geoympäristötekniikka. (Helsinki University of Technology) Erikoisjulkaisut – Special Publications. 155 s. (in Finnish. Synopsis, abstracts, tables and figures in English)  Contents:

Verdun and Freiberg, marked on the map with stars, are the study sites of the AgriAs project. Agricultural topsoil contains more arsenic in Middle and Southern Europe in average than in northern Europe as studied by scientists Timo Tarvainen and others from GTK together with other European research organizations.
Colour scale: Spatial distribution of arsenic in European agricultural topsoil (0 – 20 cm), Aqua regia extraction on the <2 mm size fraction. Source: GEMAS Data Set. Reimann, C., Birke, M., Demetriades, A., Filzmoser, P. & O’Connor, P. (eds.) 2014. Geochemistry of Europe’s Agricultural Soils. Part B. Geol.Jb. B 103.

Kirsti Loukola-Ruskeeniemi

PhD Kirsti Loukola-Ruskeeniemi coordinates at present the EU project AgriAs in the Geological Survey of Finland. She acted as the Director of Mining and Metallurgical Industry in 2012-2017 in the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment (Finland). In 2008-2012 she was the Division Manager at GTK, and before that, the Professor of Engineering Geology at the Helsinki University of Technology, where she was also the Head of the Geo-environmental Technology Section. Kirsti Loukola-Ruskeeniemi was nominated the Docent of Geochemistry in the University of Helsinki in 1998.