What is arsenic?
Arsenic is an element that occurs naturally in rocks and soil.
Arsenic can combine with other elements to make chemicals used to preserve
wood and to kill insects on cotton and other agricultural crops.
How can I be
exposed to arsenic?
It is possible to be exposed to arsenic through the following:
- Food: Arsenic in the air can be washed to the ground
when it rains, contaminating crops and fields. Although arsenic
can build up in the tissues of fish and shellfish, this form of
arsenic will not hurt people.
- Water: Water may have arsenic in it if there are
high levels of arsenic in the rocks through which the water flows, or
if there is a leaking hazardous waste site close by. Some
chemicals containing arsenic can dissolve in water.
- Air: Sawdust and smoke from burning arsenic-preserved
wood may contaminate the air you breath.
Where and how
common is arsenic found in drinking water?
Arsenic can enter the water supply from natural deposits in the earth or
from industrial and agricultural pollution. Arsenic is a natural
element used for a variety of purposes within industry and agriculture.
It is also a byproduct of copper smelting, mining, and coal burning.
Industries in the United States release thousands of pounds of arsenic
into the environment every year. Once released, arsenic remains in
the environment for a long time.
It is widely
believed that naturally occurring arsenic dissolves out of certain rock
formations when ground water levels drop significantly. Surface
arsenic-related pollutants enter the ground water system by gradually
moving with the flow of ground water from rain, melting snow, and so on.
High arsenic levels
may come from certain fertilizers, animal feedlots, and industrial waste.
High levels of arsenic found in well water are often used to indicate
improper well construction, or the location or overuse of chemical
fertilizers or herbicides.
What are the
symptoms of arsenic exposure?
Observable symptoms or effects of arsenic poisoning include:
- Thickening and discoloration of the skin
- Stomach pain, nausea, vomiting
- Numbness in hands and feet
- Partial paralysis
exposure (over many years or decades) to high levels of arsenic in
drinking water may also cause:
and discoloration of the skin;
production of blood cells;
heart rhythm and blood vessel damage; or
in the hands and feet.
Short-term exposure (days/weeks) to
very high levels of arsenic in drinking water can result in:
pain, vomiting and diarrhea;
cramping or pain;
and flushing of skin, skin rash;
burning or tingling sensation or pain in hands and feet;
of the skin on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet; or
of movement and sensory responses.
cancers – bladder, prostate, lung
Symptoms of High Level Exposure:
rough skin on hands and feet
skin coloring – dark brown or white splotches
in the hands and feet
pain, nausea, diarrhea
diabetes – this effect has not been confirmed
o not show greater risks of health
effects in children, pregnant women or other vulnerable populations
Several studies have
shown that inorganic arsenic can increase the risk of lung cancer, skin
cancer, bladder cancer, liver cancer, kidney cancer, and prostate cancer.
The World Health Organization (WHO), the Department of Health and Human
Services (DHHS), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have
determined that inorganic arsenic can cause cancer in humans.
What should I do
if I have concerns about arsenic exposure?
See your health care provider to discuss your concerns. For more
information, call the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR),
Division of Toxicology at 1-888-422-8737.
How is arsenic
There are tests that measure the level of arsenic in your body.
Arsenic can be measured in blood, urine, hair and fingernails. Testing
urine will tell you if you have been exposed to arsenic in the last few
days. Testing hair and fingernails will tell you if you have been
exposed to arsenic in the past six to twelve months. These tests
will tell you if it was arsenic that made you sick. However, the
tests cannot tell if the arsenic will make you sick in the future.
What is the
treatment for arsenic exposure?
There is no effective treatment for arsenic exposure. Your health
care provider can only help provide relief from your symptoms.
How do I remove
arsenic from my drinking water?
Please DO NOT heat or boil your water to remove arsenic. Because
some of the water will evaporate, boiling water can increase the
concentration of arsenic in your water. Disinfecting water by
chlorination or by using most mechanical filters is also NOT effective in
removing arsenic from water. However, there are several types of
filters that can be used, including reverse osmosis, ultra-filtration, and
Normal drinking water
from 0.050 milligrams per liter (mg/L) to 0.010 mg/L
The Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA)
considered arsenic at its meeting in October 1966 (World Health
Organization, 1967) and concluded that "until further data are
obtained, the maximum acceptable lead of arsenic can be placed at
mg per kg body weight per day".