What You Need to Know About Arsenic

Arsenic is a steel-gray heavy metal element that is odorless and nearly tasteless. There are two main types of arsenic. 1. Organic arsenic is a natural form of arsenic found mainly in plant and animal tissues. This form is relatively non-toxic because the arsenic atoms are unavailable for bonding with other atoms. 2. Inorganic arsenic is a man-made form of arsenic found in rocks and soil or dissolved in water. This form is highly toxic and is a known human carcinogen.

Both forms of arsenic are naturally present in the environment, but their levels have been increasing due to pollution. Scientists and public health advocates are becoming more and more concerned about the constant exposure to low levels of arsenic.

Because of its toxicity, this page will deal mainly with inorganic arsenic.

What Are The Uses for Inorganic Arsenic?

A major use for inorganic arsenic is as a wood preservative. However, inorganic arsenic has many other uses such as in:

  • Paints
  • Pesticides
  • Dyes
  • Alloying/Tempering Agents for Heavy Metals
  • Drugs
  • Soaps
  • Semi-Conductors
  • Tobacco
What Foods Contain Inorganic Arsenic?

High levels of inorganic arsenic have also been detected in many food products, especially in rice-based products such as:

  • Rice-based breakfast cereals
  • Rice-based baby cereals
  • Rice milk
  • Rice bran
  • Rice crackers
  • Brown rice syrup
  • Cereal bars containing rice and/or brown rice syrup.
How Might I Be Exposed to Inorganic Arsenic Contamination?

Working with products that commonly contain arsenic, consuming arsenic-tainted food, smoking, and drinking water contaminated with inorganic arsenic are means of exposure. Routes of exposure include:

Workplace Exposure: Workers in certain industries such as glass production, smelting, wood treatment, and the production and use of some pesticides face greater exposure risks.

Environmental Exposure: Mining, smelting, and coal-fired power plants are responsible for arsenic in air, water, and soil. Pesticides and the chemicals used for timber preservation also contribute to arsenic contamination in the environment.

Consuming Contaminated Food and Drink: Arsenic is found in most foods and drinks at low levels, however, it has been found in higher concentrations in:

  • Contaminated drinking water: Millions of people around the world are exposed to drinking water contaminated with high amounts of inorganic arsenic. Inorganic arsenic can leach into groundwater through rocks and soil from pesticides, tobacco, and industrial sources. This arsenic then contaminates the drinking water sourced from groundwater wells.
  • Rice and rice-based foods: Foods irrigated with contaminated water or grown in contaminated soil, may be sources of inorganic arsenic. Rice accumulates more arsenic than other food crops. In fact, rice and rice-based foods are the biggest food sources of inorganic arsenic.

Smoking: People who smoke may be exposed to the inorganic arsenic in tobacco.

What Health Effects are Linked to Inorganic Arsenic Exposure?

In humans, inorganic arsenic exposure by inhalation is strongly associated with lung cancer, while ingestion of inorganic arsenic has been linked to skin, bladder, liver, and lung cancer. Both the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the EPA have classified inorganic arsenic as a human carcinogen. Chronic oral exposure to elevated levels of inorganic arsenic has also resulted in gastrointestinal effects, anemia, peripheral neuropathy, skin lesions, hyperpigmentation, and liver or kidney damage.

Prenatal and early life exposure to arsenic can harm brain development and lower IQ. Numerous studies have demonstrated the negative impacts of arsenic exposure on cognitive development, concentration, learning, intelligence, and memory in children. Some studies have even found a link to higher rates of autism.

Inorganic arsenic affects a broad range of organs and systems including:

  • Skin
  • Nervous system
  • Respiratory system
  • Cardiovascular system
  • Liver, kidney, bladder, and prostate
  • Immune system
  • Endocrine system
  • Developmental processes
  • Chronic low-level exposure to inorganic arsenic is related to night blindness.

Symptoms of arsenic poisoning begin with headaches, confusion, severe diarrhea, and drowsiness. As the poisoning develops, convulsions and changes in fingernail pigmentation called leukonychia striata, Mees' lines, or Aldrich-Mees' lines may occur. When the poisoning becomes acute, symptoms may include diarrhea, vomiting, blood in the urine, cramping muscles, hair loss, stomach pain, and more convulsions. The organs of the body that are usually affected by arsenic poisoning are the lungs, skin, kidneys, and liver. The final result of arsenic poisoning is coma and death.

How Can I Tell If I Have Been Exposed to Inorganic Arsenic?

The occurrence of symptoms associated with arsenic poisoning is a telltale sign of exposure. Blood tests are not an adequate way to screen for arsenic. Arsenic is not likely to be detected in blood specimens drawn more than 2 days after exposure because it has become integrated into nonvascular tissues. Urine tests may detect exposure to arsenic within the last one or two days. Fingernail tests can detect exposure from drinking water.

What Can I Do to Protect Myself and My Family from Arsenic Contamination?
  1. Reduce the amount of rice or rice-based foods in your family’s diet.
  2. Eliminate rice-based baby foods and cereals.
  3. Buy and eat organic fruits and vegetables.
  4. Wash your vegetables, fruit, and rice thoroughly. And peel root vegetables.
  5. Limit children’s fruit juice consumption.
  6. Don’t smoke.
  7. Wear protective equipment when working in an industry with arsenic exposure.
  8. If you use arsenic-treated wood in home projects, wear protective clothing to decrease exposure to sawdust.
  9. If your water comes from a well and you live in an area with high levels of arsenic in the water, get your well tested.
  10. If your water tests positive for arsenic, Install a water filtration system that has been proven to remove arsenic or use bottled water.
  11. If you live in an area with high levels of arsenic in the soil, limit your contact with the soil and do not allow children to play in the soil.

The Collins Law Firm is a nationally recognized environmental firm fighting for plaintiffs injured by contaminated water, polluted air, toxic chemical exposure, and heavy metals. We have been honored to represent hundreds of clients affected by contamination, recovering millions in damages and obtaining clean air and water for them. If you feel you have been injured by exposure to inorganic arsenic, call us at (630) 527-1595 for a FREE evaluation of your environmental claim.

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