What is Arsenic and how is it in my water?
Arsenic is a chemical element with symbol As and atomic number 33. Arsenic occurs in many minerals, usually in combination with sulfur and metals, but also as a pure elemental crystal. Arsenic is a metalloid and has various allotropes, but only the gray form is important to industry. Arsenic is naturally present at high levels in the groundwater of a number of countries including the United States & Canada. The primary use of metallic arsenic is in alloys of lead (ex: in car batteries and ammunition). Arsenic is a common n-type dopant in semiconductor electronic devices, and the optoelectronic compound gallium arsenide is the second most commonly used semiconductor after doped silicon. Arsenic and its compounds, especially the trioxide, are used in the production of pesticides, treated wood products, herbicides, and insecticides. These applications are declining, however.
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 Effects of Exposure to Arsenic
The first symptoms of long-term exposure to high levels of inorganic arsenic (for example, 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.
Other adverse health effects that may be associated with long-term ingestion of inorganic arsenic include developmental effects, diabetes, pulmonary disease, and cardiovascular disease. Arsenic-induced myocardial infarction, in particular, can be a significant cause of excess mortality. In China (Province of Taiwan), arsenic exposure has been linked to “Blackfoot disease”, which is a severe disease of blood vessels leading to gangrene. This disease has not been observed in other parts of the world however, and it is possible that malnutrition contributes to its development.
Arsenic is also associated with adverse pregnancy outcomes and infant mortality, with impacts on child health, and exposure in utero and in early childhood has been linked to increases in mortality in young adults due to multiple cancers, lung disease, heart attacks, and kidney failure. Numerous studies have demonstrated negative impacts of arsenic exposure on cognitive development, intelligence, and memory.