• Original Articles By Dr. Lavin Featuring Expert Advice & Information about Pediatric Health Issues that you Care the Most About

    Arsenic: What it Does, Why to Worry, and What to Do

    Arsenic:  What it Does, Why to Worry, and What to Do

    Recent reports have brought to all our minds the concern that arsenic may be causing us harm in our food supply, particularly from rice and apple juice.

    This note will take a look at arsenic.  What is arsenic?  What sort of harm can it cause?  Should we be worried, and if so, what exactly is worrisome and what is not?  And given any real worry, what can be done?
    What is Arsenic?
    Most of us know arsenic as a poison, perhaps out of familiarity with the 1939 play by Thomas Kesselring, Arsenic and Old Lace.    And, indeed, this grey metal can be made into a powder that is quite poisonous to nearly every form of life, including insects and humans.   But what is arsenic?  Arsenic is an element that forms metal-like crystals, and is useful in making copper and lead more better in items we use, and is an important element in the materials that make electronic components.

    How does Arsenic cause Harm?
    Arsenic hurts nearly any living cell by blocking its ability to make energy.  Only a handful of unusual bacteria can live in the presence of arsenic, all other life is killed by the ability of arsenic to block the production of ATP, the currency of energy for all life.  Another famous poison, cyanide also blocks ATP production, but this poison creates a total and complete cessation of energy production, and hence sudden death.  Arsenic leads to varying levels of blocked energy production and so its typical method of harm has more to do with various organs and systems not working well, and eventually failing.  Death from arsenic is the result of various organs failing to work.

    What is the Sort of Harm Most Often Seen Caused by Arsenic?
    More typically, at the lower levels of the more common exposures, arsenic weakens organ functions, leading to a variety of complex problems and scenarios.  There is some indication that over time, continued exposure to even low levels of excessive arsenic can shorten life, but the most typical problems are more chronic in nature rather than deadly.

    On September 20, 2013, the New York Times published an important article on findings on what arsenic is actually doing to us now. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/20/the-arsenic-in-our-drinking-water/?ref=health

    The current evidence suggests that ongoing, low level exposure to excessive arsenic can cause people to increase their chance of having heart disease and strokes, diabetes, and cancers of the skin, bladder, and lung.  Curiously, the recent studies have found that arsenic can cause people to experience far more colds, even during infancy! 

    Some studies found that people exposed to levels of 19 parts per billion (ppb) in their drinking water began to show signs of chronic lung dysfunction, and at 120 ppb, their lung function was as abnormal as a chronic smoker.   In one country whose drinking water had levels of arsenic as high as 1,000 ppb, 24% of all deaths from all chronic illnesses could be blamed on the impact of arsenic.

    Who Should be Worried?

    Drinking Water
    In the United States, arsenic is found in varying concentrations in the drinking water, depending on two key items:
    1.  Does the family use a water system supply, or a private well?
    2.  If they use a well, do the rocks in their region have a lot of arsenic in them or not?

    The areas of the United States that have the highest levels of naturally occurring arsenic in the ground water are:
    1.  The Southwest.  Areas of Nevada have well water with levels as high as 500 ppb.
    2.  The Upper Midwest.
    3.  A band of New England- from the coast of Maine to an area midway in Massachusetts.

    Water supplied by a municipal water system is mandated by Federal law to keep the level of arsenic below 10 ppb.  This means you are very unlikely to be exposed to arsenic in your tap water if the water is from a municipal source.   Private well users must measure their arsenic level to be sure it is not over 10 ppb, particularly in the US Southwest, Upper Midwest, and the swath of New England noted above.

    Arsenic exposure can cause harm via the ability to concentrate in certain foods.  Rice, for example, is a plant that sucks arsenic out of the soil quite well, and so if it is planted in soil with arsenic contamination, that arsenic will end up in the rice grains and potentially cause harm to those eating rice.

    Other foods that concentrate arsenic include leafy vegetables, seafood, and apple and grape juice.

    In July, 2013, the FDA set a standard of 10 ppb, the same as drinking water, for apple juice, ensuring that apple juice that meets the FDA standard is as free of arsenic as safe, metropolitan, drinking water.

    The problem with American-grown rice is that much of it is grown in fields that used to grow cotton- for a very long time.  Cotton was doused with arsenic very heavily- after all no one ate it.  But over the last few hundred years that meant the soil of these fields got good and soaked with arsenic.  As noted, rice sucks arsenic out of soil really well, and so rice from the American South can contain too much arsenic.

    Bottom Line
    Arsenic is a very dangerous and very insidious poison.  If you get too much you don’t just keel over, you get chronic illnesses.  It is worth taking efforts to avoid exposure.  Here are the top 3 things to do to avoid eating too much arsenic:

    1.  Make your water tap water.  If you must use a well, find out the arsenic concentration and don’t drink it if it is over 10 parts per billion (ppb)
    2.  Commercial apple juice is now regulated to have arsenic levels below 10 ppb, it should be safe.
    3.  Rice is a real problem.   American rice from California is probably the safest bet.  Rice from the American South likely cannot be trusted to have low enough arsenic levels to be safe, and rice from the rest of the world, who knows.  So try to stick to California rice.

    Our best,
    Dr. Arthur Lavin

    Much of the powdered arsenic in our food and water supply got there through the extremely widespread use of arsenic as insecticide.

    *Disclaimer* The comments contained in this electronic source of information do not constitute and are not designed to imply that they constitute any form of individual medical advice. The information provided is purely for informational purposes only and not relevant to any person’s particular medical condition or situation. If you have any medical concerns about yourself or your family please contact your physician immediately. In order to provide our patients the best uninfluenced information that science has to offer,we do not accept samples of drugs, advertising tchotchkes, money, food, or any item from outside vendors.

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