Arsenic toxicity is exposure to toxic amounts of arsenic. It can be deadly without treatment.
Arsenic is a naturally occurring element in the earth’s crust. It has no smell or taste. There are two forms:
- Inorganic—Arsenic combined with hydrogen, oxygen, chlorine, or sulfur. It is found in the environment, sometimes as a gas.
- Organic—Arsenic combined with carbon and hydrogen. It is found in animals and plants.
Inorganic arsenic is much more harmful than organic arsenic.
Arsenic occurs naturally in soil and minerals, and may enter the air, water, and soil. It is also used:
- To preserve or pressure-treat wood—this use is being phased out except for specific applications such as railroad ties and utility poles, but old stocks may still be around and pose a risk
- As an ingredient in pesticides
- To produce glass
- In copper and other metal manufacturing
- In the electronics industry
Arsenic toxicity may occur when a person is exposed to toxic amounts of arsenic by:
- Breathing air containing arsenic
- Eating food contaminated with arsenic
- Drinking water contaminated with arsenic
- Living in areas with high natural levels of arsenic
- Working in a job that involves arsenic
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Children may be more likely to be exposed to arsenic, but it can occur in anyone. Pregnant people and their fetuses may also be at greater risk.
The risk of arsenic toxicity is also higher in people who live in an area with high natural levels of arsenic. It is also higher in people who work for:
- Companies that preserve wood with arsenic
- The metal manufacturing industry
- The glass production industry
- The electronics industry
- Other industries that use arsenic
Ingesting high levels of arsenic can result in death. Arsenic has also been linked to increased risks of many types of cancer.
Symptoms of acute arsenic exposure happen within 30 to 60 minutes after ingestion. These may include:
- A metallic or garlic taste in the mouth
- Vomiting, possibly with blood
- Watery diarrhea
- Belly pain
Acute arsenic toxicity may lead to severe problems with the heart, brain, and spinal cord. Death can occur in hours.
Symptoms of chronic arsenic exposure include:
- Thickening of skin
- Discoloration of skin
- Small corns or warts on the palms, soles, and torso
- Abnormal heart rhythm
- Numbness in hands and feet
- Not being able to move parts of the body
- Loss of vision
The doctor will ask about symptoms and past history. You will be asked about any arsenic exposure. A physical exam will be done.
Tests will be done to look for signs of arsenic toxicity. This can be done with:
- Blood tests
- Urine (pee) tests
- Hair or fingernail testing
There is no effective treatment for arsenic toxicity. Chelation therapy may benefit some people. It involves putting a chemical called a chelating agent into the bloodstream. The chelating agent combines with a toxin to help remove it from the body. Chelating agents may be given by pill or by injection.
People who are not helped by chelation therapy may be given treatments to manage symptoms, such as IV fluids.
To lower the risk of arsenic toxicity:
- Wear a mask, gloves, and protective clothing when working in industries that involve arsenic.
- Do not burn wood that has been treated with arsenic compounds.
- Use clean sources of water and limit contact with soil in areas that have high natural levels of arsenic.
- Have well water tested for arsenic.
- Acute arsenic poisoning. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/acute-arsenic-poisoning.
- Arsenic. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry website. Available at: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/substances/toxsubstance.asp?toxid=3.
- Arsenic—ToxFAQs. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry website. Available at: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxfaqs/tfacts2.pdf.
- Chemicals that can contaminate tap water. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/drinking/contamination/chemicals.html.
- Chronic arsenic poisoning. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/chronic-arsenic-poisoning.
- David L. Horn, MD, FACP
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