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Arsenic Poisoning Health Concerns and Dangers Woman Enjoys a Glass of Water

April 2022

Arsenic: Health Concerns and Dangers

Arsenic exposure from your drinking water or food can cause arsenic poisoning when found in heavier concentrations. The culprit is often in well water or groundwater used to irrigate crops. 

Arsenic is an odorless and tasteless chemical present in water all around the world. It’s 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 pollution or improper waste disposal. 

In this article, we’ll discuss the health dangers of ingesting high levels of arsenic through contaminated water or food, what symptoms of toxicity to watch out for, and how to prevent arsenic poisoning. 

How Does Arsenic Poisoning Affect Your Health?

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 liver, bladder, and lung cancer. Other adverse health effects include cardiovascular, pulmonary, immunological, neurological, and endocrine damage. 

While exposure to small amounts of arsenic over time may not have any immediate or noticeable side effects on your health, exposure to large amounts of arsenic can be toxic. 

Arsenic poisoning can occur in different ways, including inhalation, skin absorption, and ingestion of contaminated food or drinking water. Arsenic poisoning occurs at around 5 mg of arsenic for most adults, and in extreme cases, arsenic poisoning can cause death. Lethal amounts of arsenic can range from 70-180 mg. 

Arsenic can accumulate in your liver, kidneys, heart, lungs, muscles, nervous system, gastrointestinal tract, and spleen. Chronic arsenic poisoning is usually caused by drinking water with high arsenic concentrations. 

Acute arsenic poisoning symptoms can last hours to days and vary depending on the amount of arsenic consumed, the type of exposure, and the age and weight of the individual. Signs of arsenic poisoning can include:

  • Garlic breath 
  • Vomiting 
  • Abdominal pain 
  • Diarrhea 
  • Numbness 
  • Muscle cramping 
  • Tingling of the extremities 
  • Blood in the urine 
  • Hair loss 
  • Skin lesions 
  • Convulsions 
  • Hypotension 
  • Delirium  
  • Shock

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. Arsenic ingestion's long-term side effects include diabetes, pulmonary disease, developmental outcomes, and cardiovascular disease. 

Neurotoxic forms of arsenic include inorganic trivalent (arsenite), pentavalent (arsenate), and methylated metabolites. 

In Taiwan, arsenic exposure has been linked to blackfoot disease, a severe disorder of blood vessels leading to gangrene. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) can help you stay informed about arsenic and other toxins. 

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 cells’ ability to function correctly. These disruptions prevent the body from completing crucial cellular processes and could lead to further health complications. 

Our bodies use the enzyme adenosine triphosphate (ATP) for energy. Arsenic interferes with the ATP pathway, which can disturb neurological and cardiovascular systems and impair muscle function. 

If the cell's supply of ATP is low, it doesn't break down glucose as quickly as it needs to. A high dose of arsenic can cause cell disruption, bleeding, major organ failure, and even death. 

Depending on exposure, arsenic poisoning can show symptoms hours, weeks, or even months later. Signs of low-dose arsenic exposure may be harder to spot, sometimes staying dormant for five years or more. 

Where Is Arsenic Found?

There are organic and inorganic forms of arsenic. Arsenic is a naturally occurring chemical found throughout the earth's crust and found in water, air, food, and soil. Arsenic appears in elemental, gaseous (arsine gas), organic, and inorganic forms. Approximately 33% of the arsenic in the atmosphere comes from natural sources, with the most important being volcanoes. There are also human-made sources of arsenic; drinking water that comes from deep-drilled wells typically contains high arsenic levels. 

According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, arsenic in groundwater is widespread. Arsenic levels in water tend to be higher in groundwater sources, such as well water, and lower in surface water sources, such as lakes or reservoirs. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) confirms that inorganic arsenic is a carcinogen often found in contaminated water used for crop irrigation, making food a primary source of arsenic exposure. 

One of the main contributors to the presence of arsenic in the air, water, and soil are industrial processes. Oils, sediments, and groundwater often contain inorganic arsenic compounds. These compounds occur either naturally or due to mining, ore smelting, and industrial use of arsenic. 

Fish and shellfish contain organic arsenic compounds, but at a level that isn’t typically harmful. 

Is Arsenic Used for Anything?

Arsenic has several industrial and agricultural applications for getting rid of insects, fungi, and bacteria. It’s used to manufacture paints, fungicides, insecticides, pesticides, herbicides, wood preservatives, leather tanning, and cotton desiccants. 

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.  

A primary use of arsenic is to make wood preservatives for use in commercial, industrial, and residential applications. Arsenic-treated wood is used in decking, landscaping, and utility poles. 

What Is a Dangerous Level of Arsenic in Drinking Water?

The EPA has limited the amount of arsenic allowed in drinking water in the U.S. Its guidelines state that anything over 10 parts per billion (ppb) may cause arsenic intoxication. However, others have proposed 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 of chronic arsenic exposure.

What Are the Side Effects of Arsenic Poisoning in Drinking Water?

Drinking water with elevated arsenic levels can have disastrous effects on your health, including skin irritation, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, arrhythmia or tachycardia, muscle cramps, and more. Prolonged exposure to this toxic water can even cause diabetes and cancer in your skin, lungs, bladder, and kidneys. 

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

Does Bottled Water Have Arsenic?

Bottled water is popular among consumers concerned about tap water quality. However, bottled water doesn’t 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. 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 don’t have to disclose arsenic amounts below 10 ppb, which is the maximum level allowed. The arsenic levels in your preferred bottled water are difficult to determine without testing. Occasionally, the FDA does have to recall water that’s been sold with unsafe levels of arsenic. 

Which Food Brands Contain Arsenic?

Like bottled water, the FDA also tests and regulates arsenic levels in food and dietary supplements. 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 aren’t required for all foods, so consumers must determine how much arsenic is in their food on their own. 

How Can I Tell if My Food Is Safe FromArsenic Poisoning?

races of arsenic can be found in many foods you eat, including fruits, vegetables, grains, fish, and shellfish. It’s hard to detect it because you can’t taste, smell, or see arsenic in your food. 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.

How Can I Test for Arsenic Toxicity?

Several tests are 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 done at home. These tests can detect arsenic that’s 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’re concerned about arsenic exposure, it’s best to consult with your trusted healthcare provider. 

It's easy to test your drinking water for arsenic. Home testing kits 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 Do Doctors 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 safely eliminate the arsenic from its system. 

How Can I Keep My Drinking Water Safe From Arsenic?

Nevertheless, 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 2-Stage 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 tastes great. 

Likewise, you can filter the water in your house with a whole-home water filtration system from Home Water. Reach out today to learn more. 

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