Introduction to Arsenic

Arsenic, an odorless, tasteless element found naturally in the earth’s crust, is also released into the air by volcanoes as well as by commercial and industrial processes. It has two forms: inorganic and organic, with the inorganic forms being more toxic than those that are organic.

Arsenic is used in commercial products such as fungicides, herbicides, insecticides, leaded gasoline, paints and other pigments, and wood preservatives. It is also used in industrial processes including electronics, manufacturing of microwave devices, LEDs (light-emitting diodes), photoelectric cells, and semiconductor devices. Carbasone, an antiparasitic drug, contains arsenic.

How Do People Come in Contact with Arsenic?

Most of the time, people come into contact with arsenic through food that contains arsenic. It is estimated that the average adult in the United States has 50 milligrams of arsenic in his or her daily diet, with 80% of this amount coming from meat, fish, and poultry. To protect dangerous levels of arsenic consumption, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets standards for foods.

Fish, seafood, and algae have high concentrations of arsenic, the particular forms of which may be referred to as “fish arsenic.” But it has been found that so-called “fish arsenic” is rapidly excreted and has low toxicity for humans.

doctor If vineyards are sprayed with pesticides containing arsenic, then the wine produced may have notable arsenic levels. Likewise, if arsenic containing pesticides are used on tobacco leaves, then smokers may inhale small amounts of arsenic from their cigarettes.

In general, arsenic exposure from air, soil, or water occurs less often, but this is location-dependent: in some areas of the United States, Mexico, and some Asian countries, exposure to arsenic in water is more of a problem.

Although treatment of chromium-copper-arsenic (CCA) in pressure-treated wood for residential use has been phased out following the 2002 agreement between the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the lumber industry, CCA may still be found in decks, porches, picnic tables, fences, docks, building foundations, or play sets built prior to the stock o wood with CCA being used up.

The EPA also addressed the problem of ant poisons that contained arsenic, which particularly posed a danger to small children, and which began to be phased out in 1989.

Health and Arsenic

Arsenic is a known carcinogen in humans, with ingestion of inorganic arsenic being most associated with skin and lung cancers. Acute arsenic poisoning or long-term exposure to arsenic in drinking water can cause cardiovascular problems, and acute poisoning can also cause renal failure. There are a number of other adverse health effects as well.

Arsenic Testing

All community water systems must test for arsenic and, as of January 23, 2006, they must comply with a new standard for the maximum allowable amount of arsenic. Homeowners who have their own well should contact their local health department or call the Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791 for information on certified drinking water testers.

For information on testing kits for pressure treated lumber and soil, check the Environmental Working Group (EWG) web site, which offers three different kits. Tests are also available for people to determine exposure to arsenic. They can test for either recent exposure (urine test) or long-term exposure to high levels (fingernails and hair). Check with a health care professional for more information.

Written by Mary Elizabeth

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