What are sources of exposure to arsenic?

Arsenic is a natural component of the earth’s crust and is widely distributed throughout the environment in the air, water and land. It is highly toxic in its inorganic form.

People are exposed to elevated levels of inorganic arsenic through drinking contaminated water, using contaminated water in food preparation and irrigation of food crops, industrial processes, eating contaminated food and smoking tobacco.

Long-term exposure to inorganic arsenic, mainly through drinking of contaminated water, eating of food prepared with this water and eating food irrigated with arsenic-rich water, can lead to chronic arsenic poisoning. Skin lesions and skin cancer are the most characteristic effects.

What about drinking water and food?

The greatest threat to public health from arsenic originates from contaminated groundwater. Inorganic arsenic is naturally present at high levels in the groundwater of a number of countries, including Argentina, Bangladesh, Chile, China, India, Mexico, and the United States of America. Drinking-water, crops irrigated with contaminated water and food prepared with contaminated water are the sources of exposure.

Fish, shellfish, meat, poultry, dairy products and cereals can also be dietary sources of arsenic, although exposure from these foods is generally much lower compared to exposure through contaminated groundwater. In seafood, arsenic is mainly found in its less toxic organic form.

What are the symptoms of arsenic poisoning?

The first symptoms of long-term exposure to high levels of inorganic arsenic (e.g. through drinking-water and food) are usually observed in the skin, and include pigmentation changes, skin lesions and hard patches on the palms and soles of the feet (hyperkeratosis). These occur after a minimum exposure of approximately five years and may be a precursor to skin cancer.

In addition to skin cancer, long-term exposure to arsenic may also cause cancers of the bladder and lungs. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified arsenic and arsenic compounds as carcinogenic to humans, and has also stated that arsenic in drinking-water is carcinogenic to humans.

How do I prevent exposure to arsenic?

The most important action in affected communities is the prevention of further exposure to arsenic by the provision of a safe water supply for drinking, food preparation and irrigation of food crops. There are a number of options to reduce levels of arsenic in drinking-water.

  • Substitute high-arsenic sources, such as groundwater, with low-arsenic, microbiologically safe sources such as rain water and treated surface water. Low-arsenic water can be used for drinking, cooking and irrigation purposes, whereas high-arsenic water can be used for other purposes such as bathing and washing clothes.
  • Discriminate between high-arsenic and low-arsenic sources. For example, test water for arsenic levels and paint tube wells or hand pumps different colours. This can be an effective and low-cost means to rapidly reduce exposure to arsenic when accompanied by effective education.
  • Blend low-arsenic water with higher-arsenic water to achieve an acceptable arsenic concentration level.
  • Install arsenic removal systems – either centralized or domestic – and ensure the appropriate disposal of the removed arsenic. Technologies for arsenic removal include oxidation, coagulation–precipitation, absorption, ion exchange and membrane techniques. There is an increasing number of effective and low-cost options for removing arsenic from small or household supplies, though there is still limited evidence about the extent to which such systems are used effectively over sustained periods of time.

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What about bathing/showering, or other uses?

Unless your arsenic level is over 500 ppb , showering, bathing and other household uses are safe. Arsenic is not easily absorbed through the skin and does not evaporate into the air.

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