Arsenic is a tasteless, colorless, odorless substance. It is a relatively common element, yet toxic even at low doses.
Sources of arsenic
Naturally occurring arsenic can be found in minerals within soil throughout the world. It is usually bound to particles of metal, and breaks free in groundwater. Therefore it is a common water contaminant. The EPA sets the maximum allowable level of arsenic in water at 10 ppb.
Arsenic contamination also occurs through industrial processes. It is commonly used as a preservative to treat wood, so there’s a good chance your family is exposed through landscaping materials or outdoor wood structures. It can be released as a result of mining or fracking operations. Perhaps most shocking of all, it’s actually fed to chickens on chicken-farming operations to promote growth. The chicken litter from arsenic fed chickens is then spread over farmland, where it can leach into water supplies. (Silbergeld, 2004)
Health risks related to arsenic exposure
Arsenic is a poison that kills quickly in high doses: A single dose of as little as 300 milligrams (1/100 of an ounce) of arsenic can cause death within 24 hours. Even smaller doses, when repeatedly ingested, can prove lethal over a period of days or weeks. (Fleming, 2010) There is no known cure for arsenic toxicity, and no drugs to reverse the damage. The only treatment for extreme cases is chelation therapy, which involves injecting bonding agents into a person’s blood, and is both highly risky and expensive.
At non-lethal doses, low-dose exposure to arsenic carries a wide-range of negative health effects, everything from mild nausea to blindness. At low levels it seems to set the stage for cancer by interfering with genes that suppress tumors. (Shabecoff & Shabecoff, 2010, p. 97) Regular exposure to small amounts of arsenic has been shown to increase the risk of bladder, lung, and skin cancer. It can also contribute to heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
One study of people in Bangladesh who had water supplies that contained 50 to 149 micrograms of arsenic per liter (higher than the 10 micrograms per liter set for arsenic in U.S. water) were 44% more likely to die of cancer after using the water for 20 to 30 years than were those with less arsenic in their water. (Schardt, 2014)