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April 2022

Arsenic: Health Concerns and Dangers

Arsenic is a natural element that is present in the Earth’s crust and found in water, air, food, and soil. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, arsenic in groundwater is a widespread problem. Arsenic levels in water tend to be higher in groundwater sources, such as wells, and lower in surface sources, such as lakes or reservoirs.[1]

The World Health Organization confirms that inorganic arsenic is a carcinogen and a contaminant often found in drinking water. Food is the primary source of arsenic exposure—usually, a result of crops being irrigated with arsenic-contaminated water. Arsenic enters the body through ingestion of contaminated food or water, through direct contact with the skin, or by breathing dust containing the element.

The health concerns caused by long-term arsenic exposure differ among individuals. The first symptoms of arsenic exposure are typically observed in the skin with visible changes in pigmentation, lesions, and patches on the palms and soles of the feet. Over time, skin cancer may also develop along with cancer of the liver, bladder, and lungs. Other adverse health effects include cardiovascular, pulmonary, immunological, neurological, and endocrine damage.

How Does Arsenic Affect Your Health?

There are short-term and long-term effects on your health caused by exposure to arsenic. The immediate symptoms of arsenic poisoning include vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. In extreme cases, arsenic poisoning can even cause death. Long-term side effects of arsenic ingestion include diabetes, pulmonary disease, developmental effects, and cardiovascular disease.

Why Is Arsenic Harmful?

Arsenic is a natural element present in our environment. However, long-term exposure to low doses of arsenic may change the way cells communicate–reducing your cell’s ability to function properly. These disruptions in the cellular process prevent the body from completing crucial cellular processes and could lead to further health complications.

Arsenic also interferes with the ATP pathway, which can disturb neurological and cardiovascular systems as well as impair muscle function. Our body uses ATP for energy. If the cell’s supply of ATP is low, it doesn’t break down glucose as quickly as it needs to.[2] A high dose of arsenic can cause cell disruption, bleeding, major organ failure, and even death.

How Long Does It Take for Arsenic to Harm Your Body?

Depending on the type of exposure, arsenic poisoning can be immediate, with symptoms showing in 30 minutes or less. Sings of low-dose arsenic exposure may be harder to spot, sometimes staying dormant for five years or more.

Does Bottled Water Have Arsenic?

Over the past few years, bottled water has become popular among consumers who are concerned about tap water quality. However, bottled water does not always ensure arsenic-free drinking water. Consumer Reports found that several bottled water brands contained potentially harmful levels of arsenic.

In early 2019, Consumer Reports tested 130 bottled water brands for arsenic content. These tests revealed 11 brands with detectable amounts of arsenic, including six brands with arsenic levels at 3 ppb or higher. According to current research, arsenic amounts above 3 ppb are potentially dangerous to drink over extended periods.[3]

Which Bottled Water Brands Contain Arsenic?

Nearly all popular bottled water brands sell water that contains varying levels of arsenic. While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates arsenic levels, brands do not have to disclose arsenic amounts that are below 10 ppb, which is the maximum level allowed. The arsenic levels in your preferred bottle of water are difficult to determine without testing. Occasionally, the FDA does have to recall water that has been sold with unsafe levels of arsenic.[4]

Which Food Brands Contain Arsenic?

Similar to bottled water, the FDA also tests and regulates arsenic levels in food. However, most of their testing concentrates on brands that offer baby food and rice cereals, which are more prone to arsenic contamination. Arsenic testing and labeling is not required for all foods, so consumers must determine how much, if any, arsenic is in their food on their own. Some foods that are known to be high in arsenic include fish, shellfish, meat, poultry, dairy products, and cereals.[5]

Arsenic Poisoning

What Causes Arsenic Poisoning?

While exposure to small amounts of arsenic over time will not have many immediately or noticeable side effects, exposure to large amounts of arsenic can be toxic. Arsenic poisoning can occur in different ways, including inhalation, skin absorption, and through ingestion. For most adults, arsenic poisoning occurs at around 5 mg of arsenic and lethal amounts of arsenic can range from 100 to 300 mg.[6]

What Are the Symptoms of Arsenic Poisoning?

Acute arsenic poisoning symptoms typically last up to 12 hours and can vary depending on the amount of arsenic consumed and the age and weight of the individual. Signs of arsenic poisoning can include:

  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Numbness
  • Muscle cramping
  • Tingling of the extremities
  • Blood in the urine
  • Hair loss
  • Convulsions

How To Test For Arsenic Toxicity?

There are several tests available to measure arsenic levels in your blood, urine, hair, and fingernails. One of the most reliable tests for measuring arsenic levels in your body is a urine test which can be done at home. These tests can detect arsenic that has entered your body in the last two to three days—giving you your current risk for exposure. However, these tests can’t replace a doctor. If you are concerned about arsenic exposure, it is best to consult with your trusted healthcare provider.

You can also test your drinking water for arsenic. Home testing kits are available to measure arsenic in your tap water, but professional testers can provide more accurate readings. Your state and local water suppliers can also offer more information on arsenic levels that are allowed in your area’s drinking water supply.

How to Treat Arsenic Poisoning?

Arsenic poisoning treatments can vary by exposure and individual. The main objective of the treatment is to remove arsenic from the body and then mitigate the symptoms by quickly removing the source of the arsenic. Conventional arsenic poisoning treatments include blood transfusions and bowel irrigation, which flushes the intestines and helps prevent arsenic absorption into the blood. Chelation therapy is another treatment where chemicals help isolate the arsenic from the blood proteins, allowing the body to eliminate the arsenic from its system safely.[7]

Arsenic in Water

Arsenic is an odorless and tasteless chemical, that is present in water all around the world. It is naturally occurring in rocks and often makes its way into the water supply as it dissolves out of rocks and goes into groundwater. Arsenic is also present in much of today’s industrial and agricultural waste and can contaminate water sources in the form of pollution or improper waste disposal.

What Is a Dangerous Level of Arsenic in Water?

The FDA and EPA have put limits on the amount of arsenic that is allowed in drinking water in the U.S. Their guidelines state that anything over 10 ppb may be harmful or toxic. However, others have proposed much stricter limits to reduce the possibility of arsenic accumulation over time. If your body is sensitive to the effects of arsenic, then you may notice adverse side effects at or below the recommended levels.

What Are the Side Effects of Arsenic in Water?

Drinking water with high levels of arsenic can have disastrous effects on your health, including red or swollen skin, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, abnormal heart rhythm, muscle cramps, and more. Prolonged exposure to this toxic water can even cause diabetes and cancer in your skin, lungs, bladder, and kidney.

While low levels of arsenic have few if any noticeable side effects, recent studies have found an association between arsenic below 10 ppb and IQ defects in children. Leading some to believe drinking water with arsenic levels below the national standard can still have harmful side effects.[8]

What Is Arsenic Used For?

Arsenic has several industrial and agricultural applications for getting rid of insects, fungi, and bacteria. It is also used in the treatment of wood. One of the most popular uses involves a process known as “doping,” where it acts as a semiconductor to increase its conductivity in devices such as transistors. Arsenic is also used in short wave infrared technology.

What Is the Main Use of Arsenic?

The main use of arsenic is for the preservation of wood used in commercial, industrial, and residential applications. This arsenic-treated wood is used in decking, landscaping, and utility poles. Arsenic is also commonly used as a preservative in leather tanning, as a weed killer, and as a termite infestation treatment.

Where Is Arsenic?

Arsenic is a naturally occurring chemical that is found throughout the earth’s crust. About one-third of the arsenic in the atmosphere comes from natural sources. These sources include volcanoes as well as human-made sources. High levels of arsenic are found in drinking water that comes from deep-drilled wells. One of the main contributor to the presence of arsenic in the air, water, and soil are industrial processes, including mining, smelting, and coal-fired power plants.

How Can I Tell If My Food Is Safe?

Traces of arsenic can be found in many of the foods you eat, including fruits, vegetables, grains, fish, and shellfish. Because you cannot taste, smell, or see arsenic in your food, it is hard to detect it. You can follow several recommendations to limit your exposure to arsenic in foods, including eating a balanced diet, thoroughly rinsing fruits and vegetables, and limiting your consumption of rice-based drinks.[9]

How Can I Keep My Drinking Water Safe?

One of the cheapest and simplest ways to ensure arsenic-free drinking water at home is with a water filter. Under sink water filters, like the EZChange Drinking Water Filter from HomeWater, use activated carbon filters with a 0.5-micron filtration system. This combination helps remove 99.99% of all arsenic, chlorine, lead, mercury, nickel, copper, chromium, cadmium, cobalt, and other harmful contaminants—delivering clean, safe drinking water that also tastes great.

Sources
  1. Official website of the United States Government. https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/arsenic/index.cfm. Accessed June 29, 2019.
  2. Micheal F, Hudges, Barbara D. Beck, Yu Chen, Ari S. Lewis and David J. Thomas. “Arsenic Exposure and Toxicology: A Historical Perspective”. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3179678/ Published online July 12, 2011. Accessed June 29,2019.
  3. Ryan Felton. https://www.consumerreports.org/bottled-water/keurig-dr-pepper-withdraws-penafiel-bottled-water-excessive-arsenic-levels/ Published online June 21, 2019. Accessed June 29, 2019.
  4. Electronic Code of Federal Regulations. https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=a345042f6bd438d7949b0270596b60fd&mc=true&node=se21.2.165_1110&rgn=div8. Accessed July 5, 2019.
  5. Official website of U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/food/metals/fda-statement-testing-and-analysis-arsenic-rice-and-rice-products. Accessed July 5, 2019.
  6. RN Ratnaike. “Acute and chronic arsenic toxicity”. https://pmj.bmj.com/content/79/933/391. Published July 1, 2003. Accessed July 5, 2019.
  7. Official website of International Food Information Council Foundation. https://foodinsight.org/questions-and-answers-about-arsenic-in-food-and-beverages/. Accessed June 30,2019.
  8. Tyler, Christina R, and Andrea M Allan. “The Effects of Arsenic Exposure on Neurological and Cognitive Dysfunction in Human and Rodent Studies: A Review.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4026128/. Published Mar 21, 2014. Accessed July 5, 2019.
  9. Laura Jeffers, MEd, Rd, LD. “How you can avoid low level of arsenic in rice and chicken”. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/how-you-can-avoid-low-level-arsenic-in-rice-and-chicken/. Accessed June 30, 2019.

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