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What to Know About Arsenic and Your Health

Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on April 08, 2022

‌Most people recognize arsenic as a poison. They may not know, however, that arsenic is often present in drinking water and occurs in some foods. Arsenic also has industrial uses. 

You probably contact arsenic often, just not in toxic amounts. Still, it's good to know something about arsenic and how it can impact your health. 

What Is Arsenic?

‌Arsenic is a semi-metal or a metalloid, a designation given to elements that have characteristics of both metals and non-metals. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Chinese had various uses for arsenic. The Victorians used a tonic containing arsenic for health. Today, it still has a few limited medicinal uses.

Arsenic occurs in the earth's crust and is present in air, water, and soil. It has two forms: organic and inorganic. The inorganic form is highly toxic. The organic form is not. 

Arsenic as a Poison

‌Arsenic can cause accidental poisonings. It can also be a tool for those wanting to kill someone. 

A Greek doctor recognized arsenic as a poison in the first century. It doesn't change the color, taste, or smell of food, so murderers used it for many centuries. Historians believe that powerful families such as the Borgias of Italy used arsenic to get rid of their rivals. 

An English chemist developed a test for arsenic in 1836. This test made it harder for arsenic poisoners to get away with their crimes.

Different doses cause different arsenic poisoning symptoms. Given in a single large dose, arsenic causes severe stomach distress. It can cause death by shock if the dose is large enough. It can also be toxic in smaller doses that accumulate in the body. As the arsenic load increases, it causes weakness, confusion, and paralysis, and can eventually lead to death.

Laboratories use urine tests to check for recent exposure to arsenic. Because arsenic binds with proteins in hair, modern laboratories can check for past exposure by testing hair. Since hair grows at the rate of about one-half an inch per month, this test will show approximately when exposure occurred.

How Does Arsenic Affect Health?

In small amounts, arsenic may not cause death but can cause many health problems. Those working in certain industries may inhale arsenic. For most people, the primary source is their diet. Children may ingest arsenic by getting dirt from their hands into their mouths. 

Exposure to arsenic can increase the risk of cancer. It can also affect systems of the body, including the:

  • Respiratory system
  • Cardiovascular system
  • Brain and nervous system
  • Kidneys and bladder
  • Skin

The effects of arsenic on health depend upon the quantity and whether the arsenic was inhaled or ingested. Different forms of arsenic can also cause different problems. 

Arsenic and Cancer Risk

A‌rsenic exposure can increase your risk of getting cancer, especially in these organs:

  • Lungs
  • Bladder
  • Prostate
  • Kidney
  • Liver
  • Skin

Skin cancer is the form most often connected to arsenic exposure. Lung cancer is the most deadly. 

Arsenic in Drinking Water

‌Arsenic naturally occurs in many water supplies, presenting a threat to public health. In Bangladesh, authorities estimate that arsenic in well water causes around 43,000 deaths a year. It is present at significant levels in the groundwater of:

  • The United States
  • Argentina
  • Bangladesh
  • China
  • India
  • Mexico

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency and state agencies monitor public water supplies. If you have a private well, get your water tested regularly for arsenic and other toxins.   

Arsenic in Rice

‌Besides drinking water, the most likely source of arsenic in the diet is rice. It can absorb arsenic from the soil or from the remains of chemicals that were once used in farming. It can also absorb arsenic from water. 

Experts believe that rice may contain more arsenic than other plants because it is often grown in flooded fields. That makes it easier for arsenic, which is water soluble, to get into the rice plants.

Rice may be favored above others grains by those who avoid gluten. If you eat a lot of rice, though, consider these steps for reducing your arsenic exposure. 

Explore other grains. You can easily substitute other grains for rice, and you'll find that each has its own unique taste and texture. Quinoa, buckwheat, millet, and amaranth are also gluten-free. Even if you're not trying to avoid gluten, including these grains in your diet could make food more interesting and nutritious.

Check labels. Foods such as snack bars, cereals, and noodles can contain rice. If you're calculating your rice intake, you'll need to add in these less-obvious sources of rice.

Change your cooking method. Rinse your rice before cooking. Then, cook it like pasta in a ratio of six parts water to one part rice. When you drain the rice, you'll remove about half of the arsenic. 

Choose your rice carefully. Rice from Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas has more arsenic than rice from California, India, and Pakistan. Brown rice also has more arsenic than white rice, although brown is typically healthier than white. 

If you have children, watch their rice intake. Many foods designed for babies and children use rice, yet children may be less able to eliminate toxins than adults. Also, since children eat more food in relation to their body weight than adults, they could be ingesting a higher proportion of arsenic.

Arsenic in Other Foods

Rice is not the only food that contains arsenic. 

These foods can also contain small amounts: 

Seafood. Shellfish and some other sea animals survive by filtering ocean water. If that water contains arsenic, the animals may store it in their bodies. The arsenic in seafood is almost always organic, though, and consequently does not harm human health.  

Fruits and vegetables. Plants absorb arsenic from the soil, but typically in very small amounts. In the past, some fruit growers treated their orchards and fields with products containing arsenic. Some arsenic may remain in the soil today. To be safe, reduce children's intake of apple, pear, and grape juice.

Animal products. Meat, dairy products, and eggs contain very little arsenic. In the past, livestock farmers, though, sometimes treated their animals with products containing arsenic. This use of arsenic was banned in the United States in 2016. Now, animals can pick up trace amounts of arsenic from soil and water, but not at a dangerous level. 

Industrial Uses of Arsenic

Many industries used arsenic in the past. Manufacturers have mostly phased out those practices, but although its use is tightly controlled, you can still contact arsenic if you work in a smelting facility or work with wood preservatives. 

Show Sources

SOURCES:

American Cancer Society: "Arsenic and Cancer Risk."

Consumer Reports: "How much arsenic is in your rice?"

Dartmouth Toxic Metals: "Arsenic: A Murderous History," "Arsenic in Fruits, Juices, and Vegetables," "Arsenic in Meat and Animal Products," "Arsenic in Rice and Rice Products," "Arsenic in Seafood and Seaweed," "The Facts on Arsenic."

Journal of Toxicology: "Arsenic Exposure and the Induction of Human Cancers."

Mayo Clinic Laboratories: "Test ID: ASHA."

Royal Society of Chemistry Periodic Table: "Arsenic."

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "ToxGuide for Arsenic."

World Health Organization: "Arsenic."

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