Odorless and tasteless, arsenic lurks everywhere – in rice and in chicken breasts, in apple juice and in drinking water. It’s all around, but not in amounts sufficient to cause acute (short-term) poisoning. On the other hand, chronic (long-term) exposure to lower arsenic doses occurs way too often, and may lead to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancers and other human disorders.
Contamination of drinking water by arsenic is a global health threat. Presence of arsenic in groundwater is largely the result of minerals dissolving from weathered rocks and soils. In addition, arsenic enters the drinking water supply because of runoff from orchards, electronics production waste or other industrial activities.
Bangladesh is considered a hot-spot for groundwater contamination with arsenic – however, the water supply is contaminated in many regions all around the world. Results from a study recently published in the journal Science (August 2013) indicate that in China 19.6 million people are at risk of being affected by the consumption of arsenic-contaminated groundwater.
Widespread high concentrations of arsenic are present in the groundwater of several areas of the U.S., including the West, the Midwest, parts of Texas, and the Northeast. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) develops maps that show where and to what extent arsenic occurs in groundwater across the country – The current maps are based on samples from 31,350 wells.
Chronic exposure to arsenic through drinking water is linked to respiratory diseases. Arsenic affects the function of the immune system as well as lung development and causes increased susceptibility to respiratory infections. Results from a study carried out in Bangladesh and published in August in the journal American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine show that arsenic induces lung damage similar to the damage induced by decades of tobacco smoking. The results also show that, especially in males, tobacco smoking makes arsenic-related damage even worse.
“Restrictive lung defects, such as we saw in those exposed to well-water arsenic, are usually progressive and irreversible,” said Habibul Ahsan, Director of the Center for Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention at the University of Chicago Medicine and lead author of the study. “They can lead over time to serious lung disease.”
As for many other pollutants, a major concern is prenatal exposure, which may lead to adverse health effects later on in life. Results from studies carried out in animal models suggest that arsenic exposure during adult and fetal life is linked to development of respiratory infections. In 2009, Courtney Kozul and collaborators published a study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives showing that, in adult mice, arsenic exposure through drinking water significantly compromises the immune response to infection by influenza virus.
Following up on this study, just a few weeks ago, a team of researchers from Australia published in Environmental Health Perspectives a study in which mice were exposed to arsenic during fetal life (pregnant mice were given drinking water containing arsenic – arsenic crosses the placenta and, therefore, reaches the fetus). Results from the study show that pups born from exposed mothers exhibit abnormal responses to influenza infection in early life. In addition, results show that arsenic exposure in early life leads to lung damage in adulthood.
At this point, it is reasonable to ask whether or not similar effects could be present in humans. On the basis of published studies, the answer seems to be yes. During a study performed in Bangladesh a few years ago, Anisur Rahman and collaborators assessed maternal exposure by measuring levels of arsenic in urine samples collected during pregnancy. Once born, the babies were evaluated every month for symptoms of lower respiratory tract infection and diarrhea up to 1 year of age. The results of the study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2011, show that arsenic exposure during pregnancy is associated with increased risk of contracting infectious diseases for the first year of life.
More recently, similar results were obtained by Shohreh Farzan and colleagues through a study conducted on a mother-infant US population and published in Environmental Research (June 2013). The researchers evaluated the association between maternal levels of arsenic in urine during pregnancy and risk of infection in infants and found that elevated maternal concentrations of arsenic were associated with infant infections, including upper respiratory infections and colds.
Exposure to arsenic in the studies by Rahman and by Farzan could have occurred not just by drinking water – indeed, ingestion of contaminated food is often responsible for arsenic intake. Intake from air is also possible. However, both studies indicate that, in human populations, maternal exposure to arsenic during pregnancy leads to serious adverse health effects in the infants.
I love the fact that this article has a map depicting where the levels of arsenic are higher. We need to control our farms/irrigation systems with more restriction if all this run-off is leaking into our sources of drinking water. What other preventative measures could we take to help with this soon to be epidemic, if we aren’t considering it one already?
Its fascinating to me that we are told/recommended to drink 8 glasses of water daily if not more knowing that this could lead to the adverse affects that arsenic exposure causes. I know that water is good for you and all that good stuff it just surprises me with this data. Arsenic affects the function of the immune system which in turn will lower our immune system which decreases our chances in fighting off infections, or makes this fight longer.
I wonder if there is a way to keep the arsenic from passing through the placenta while a mother in carrying a child? We would have to come up with a way to directly remove it from the blood or block it completely from entering the placenta.
What many people fail to realize is this problem will likely continue to go uncontrolled. Unfortunately, the main source of control is done through fines of the EPA, however those fines are so minimal that it is easier for companies to just pay them than to dispose of contaminants like arsenic. Have you noticed how SO many companies have used other countries for manufacturing? It is not just the cheap labor or products, but the relaxed regulation of proper disposal. The best prevention is simply awareness. Water and air pollution/contamination will continue to be a problem in the world, but personal awareness and spreading the word are the simplest and best way for things like this to change.
I totally agree with you that the irrigation system is the main problem. When the water is contaminated with arsenic it is used for drinking and also the irrigation system. The irrigation system contains plants that will be eaten and cause arsenic poisoning later. It very sad that arsenic passes the placenta and will cause problems when the baby is born. It is very difficult to come with treatments for arsenic poisoning since it cause irreversible damage.
While the data above does show arsenic present in groundwater, this does not necessarily mean drinking water in the United States is contaminated with it. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enforces standards for public water systems (1). In 2006, over 90 percent of the nation’s community water systems met the EPA standards (2). It is safe to assume the water from municipal sources in the US is objectively safer to drink than tap water in many developing countries.
However, drinking water safety around the world is still controversial. Even with strict regulations, some contaminants arise in tap water. It would seem that a lot of factors could affect this, such as country, state, and county regulations. In 1987, 13,000 people in Carrolton, Georgia were infected with cryptosporidiosis, a parasitic protozoan. This was from water contamination of a municipal water system that strictly met state and federal drinking standards. Sand filtration and chlorination met the standards at the time, but it still allowed the parasite to pass into the water supply (3). Even water bottles are not necessarily safer than tap water. Many bottles list on their labels that their water is taken from municipal sources, which is the same as tap water.
1) Drinking Water Contaminants. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. http://water.epa.gov/drink/contaminants/index.cfm#List
2) Royte, Elizabeth. 2008. Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It.
3) Cryptosporidiosis in Georgia. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/epicasestudies/downloads/cryptoGA_instr.pdf
I was looking around to see if there was a way to prevent arsenic from passing into the placenta. I did not find any research on such a matter, the only way to prevent arsenic from passing onto the baby is to practice preventive care by changing the mother’s diet. A food that has high levels of arsenic is rice. Rice is treated with pesticides that have high concentrations of arsenic. When pregnant, you should try to limit your consumption of rice and other rice products. As for water, water always has traces of arsenic. The regulation of water is to filter the water until arsenic levels are low enough to be deemed acceptable for drinking. I think when pregnant, you should just be careful with where the water is coming from, how much water you are drinking, and watch what you eat. Doing some of these preventative measures should allow the baby to have a decrease risk of arsenic passing through to the placenta.
I am concerned though about how this arsenic rice in the U.S. contradicts to Asian countries. In many Asian countries, their primary meal is rice, so why don’t they have problems with arsenic? Do they have problems and we just don’t know about it?
If there are no problems with eating rice in these Asian countries maybe the U.S. should use the same rice growing methods as them.
Over the past few years one of the more discussed issues within science is the danger of arsenic poisoning in many of the foods we consume. However, I never new exactly what parts of the human body are harmed by this potent substance. I think it’s fascinating that researchers have linked arsenic poisoning to lung damage and Influenza. Arsenic exposure is probably reducing the levels of macrophages and other cells in the respiratory tract. Exposure will also effect the mucociliary escalator, which is commonly used to remove pathogens from the respiratory tract. One of the questions I have is whether chronic arsenic poisoning will also affect the immune response to other respiratory tract infections? The article states that arsenic exposure can even effect a fetus. Does this mean the child will be more likely to contract Varicella Zoster Virus (chickenpox)?
Arsenic dampens the immune response and leads to an increase in opportunistic pathogens. It is very interesting that although arsenic affects both men and women, its effects are more pronounced in men than in women. This maybe due to men already having a “weaker” immune system than women; men have higher levels of testosterone, and testosterone has immunosuppressive properties. This double dampening of the immune system in men is probably what causes men who smoke to worsen their arsenic related damage.
Arsenic poisoning is something very serious and is a global problem. The problem appears to be even more pronounced in developing countries that are going through the process of industrialization and do not have strict codes to prevent pollution that are being adhered to. Because arsenic can contaminate drinking water via runoff from orchards and minerals dissolving from weathered rocks and soil, even places that have a stricter control on pollution and contamination of drinking water are at risk. I believe that some method of filtration should be devised that can become the world standard because this is a problem that is prevalent everywhere.
Indeed this is a global issue and industrialization will continue for sometime in many developing countries therefore arsenic contamination of water sources will always be a potential threat. With countries developed as the United States, who have standards for water filtration, suffering from the arsenic in the drinking water a more effective method than the one they have in tact must be devised. It could be possible that filtration simply will not be enough alone if the United States is so badly troubled with the issue in Texas and in the Midwest in particular. Possibly orchard, electronic production waste, and industrial waste should be more closely watched and preventative measures taken to reduce the amount of arsenic that enters our drinking water from these sources. Limiting arsenic contamination of drinking water to natural sources like weathered rocks and soil.
I’ve always known that drinking tap water or unfiltered water can lead to problems in our bodies due to chemicals and molecules that find their way through. I hadn’t heard about Arsenic specifically, and so this article has opened my eyes to this issue, especially when it associates with the immune system. What I found out was that, Arsenic actually causes cytokine expression modifications in granulocytes/monocytes-colony stimulation factor (known as GM-CSF), which are inflammatory molecules (1). This would ultimately lead to chronic inflammation to occur which, as we talked about in another post, does lead to diseases like cancer and heart disease, as well as decreased metabolic rates. Another form of Arsenic affecting the immune system is the way it modifies T helper cells, specifically targeting activation pathways in this case. By doing this, it alters the T cell receptors, therefore interfering with activation signals of T cells (1). This could eventually lead to apoptosis and immunosuppression. And so, I questioned what ways we could prevent arsenic from getting into our systems, and I found a study where these scientists are using plants for bioremediation of places affected by arsenic. Plants like the Chinese brake fern Pteris vittata, have the ability to accumulate arsenic from polluted soil. If we can find solutions like these, we might be able to find a way to get rid of this poison (2)
1. Kozul CD, Hampton TH, Davey JC, Gosse JA, Nomikos AP et al. (2009) Chronic exposure to arsenic in the drinking water alters the expression of immune response genes in mouse lung. Environ Health Perspect 117: 1108-1115.10.1289/ehp.0800199 PubMed: 19654921. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
2. I. Alkorta, J. Herna ́ndez-Allica, C. Garbisu, Plants against the global epidemic of arsenic poisoning, Environ. Int. 30 (7) (2004) 949–951.
I like that you included a possible option for removing arsenic from the ground (Chinese Brake Fern) but I am wondering how effective this particular treatment is and how many plants would be necessary to significantly reduce arsenic levels? I think that although drinking well water is risky, couldn’t exposure to to certain pathogens that are consumed also trigger an immune response that would produce antibodies?
I just want to add on to your comment that in addition to the cytokine expression modifications in granulocytes/monocytes-colony stimulation factor, the signals are also inhibiting the cascade signals that may eventually lead to the inability of degranulation of mast cells. As we all know, mast cells deals will inflammation for parasitic infection and allergy response. The activation of the degranulation pathway is triggered by an antigen which binds to the receptors of the mast cells initiating internal signaling pathway for pro-inflammatory meditators via degranulation (1). The disruption of the signal transduction inhibits the degranulation of the mast cells. With the signal to degranulation blocked, it prevents compounds that fight off parasites from releasing from the cell’s granulocytes. This may induce parasitic infection and increase the opportunity for opportunist pathogens to infect. Also, Mast cells are closely connected to igE, a class of antibodies that helps with hypersensitivity. If the signal pathway from igE to the igE receptors of mast cells is disrupted, then chronic hypersensitivity may occur. The disruption of the signal transduction from the igE to the igE receptor mast cells leads back to the cytokine expression modifications in granulocytes/monocytes-colony stimulation factor, which may cause a lot of immunity problems. If the mother passes her immunity to her fetus via passive immunity with this modification in signaling transduction, I can somewhat understand why the infant would have many adverse effects.
1. Velez, Alejandro, “Investigation of the Mechanism Underlying Arsenic Disruption of Mast Cell Degranulation” (2013). Honors College. Paper 97. [http://digitalcommons.library.umaine.edu/honors/97]
Arsenic is a chemical element that is found in many mineral rocks. When humans came into contact with arsenic when they ingest it causes severe problems. It is very interesting that the article mentions that arsenic has the same problems like smoking tobacco for many years. Many people thought that those who had lung cancer had smoked tobacco but research has proven that wrong since arsenic causes many cancer like lung cancer and skin cancer.
People take in small amounts of arsenic in the air, food and water. This is mainly problematic in third world countries; Bangladesh is the country the most arsenic poising cases. The most severe cases is that arsenic passes the placenta (1). The babies that are born are highly susceptible to many diseases particularly influenza. Many of this children die since they are sick all the time and they parents have no money to take the to the hospital
Fei, D., Koestler, D., Li, Z., Giambelli, C., Sanchez-Mejias, A., Gosse, J., & … Robbins, D. (2013). Association between In Utero arsenic exposure, placental gene expression, and infant birth weight: a US birth cohort study. Environmental Health: A Global Access Science Source, 1258. doi:10.1186/1476-069X-12-58
This is indeed a very concerning topic. As stated in previous comments, I agree that it is funny that we are suggested to drink so much water a day, yet there are traces of harmful substances in it.. I wonder if there are different arsenic levels in city water versus well water, or if that even makes a difference. I would speculate that well water could have more arsenic due to less filtration. The home owner would not know if it was there, but city water is routinely tested. The map showing levels also states it is from wells, but again, I am interested in data for city water. I think if we instill better filtration systems this threat would be decreased.
This contamination is scary because not only does it affect our immune system, but it affects other activities in the body as well. It can interefere with reactions and cause cancer! Our body is being attacked, and then the system our body uses to fight the pathogens is getting attacked too, so it is hard to combat. I was doing some more reading and found that arsenic is being used to treat a rare type of leukemia. This makes me even more interested because there are so many substances that one will say is harmful, and then another study will say it is beneficial, causing more confusion.
Who would have ever thought that drinking water could be bad for you. The fact that arsenic poisoning is an issue in a country as developed as the United States can only make me wonder the extent of damage that the poisoning is causing in developing countries. I can imagine that they are in even worse condition than China. Being an individual who drinks water frequently it makes me question my own safety and I would like to see the issue solved. Seeing as the source of the issue is identified already the problem is prime for being solved. Constructing water runoff system that helps filtrate water more efficiently as xyZee stated should be devised, but there could be another solution. Attempting to neutralize the arsenics toxicity or severely reduce it to the point were even chronic exposure is not harmful. This could be done by attempting to form a compound using other elements with arsenic that reduces its toxicity to insignificant levels. Also reading that arsenic poisoning causes similar damage to the lungs as smoking should make anyone put down a cigarette.
I actually know a lot about arsenic in the water from taking environmental science. The rule of thumb was to never drink well water because of the increased amount of arsenic. That’s why you should always drink filtered water, and even then there are some traces of arsenic. Arsenic can do a lot of harm to the immune system, even in small amounts. From an outside article, a low concentration of arsenic can be detrimental. The reason why is because arsenic affects the innate immune response, or the first level of defense. Arsenic is regulating certain genes in the innate immune response to eliminate infections. Macrophages, neutrophils, and dendritic cells are not eliminating pathogens or activating T cell and B cells. When the innate immune response is not activated, then the adaptive immune response will not be activated as well. This then results in no memory cells of the previous infection. This is probably why children that were infected with arsenic in the womb are having problems during their first year of life. Arsenic is not letting the immune system work properly. Hopefully we can change that by having a better system for detecting and eliminating arsenic.
I have one last remark about this article that I thought was interesting. Males who smoke have a greater risk for arsenic related damage. Why is that only males who smoke increase their risk for arsenic related damage? What about females who smoke? Could it be a result of males having more testosterone? I just thought it was an interesting fact that had to be questioned.
Arsenic is clearly a potent substance with substantial consequences when used inappropriately. Upon reading this article many questions come to mind. Knowing that this acute poisoning is occurring, why are there no new standards placed on water treatment plants? With studies like those that are referenced in the article above, one would hope that there would be innovations being produced now that are working to correct this problem. This point brings me to another thought. Are there possibly more contaminants that have not received as much attention as arsenic that are being dealt with? In cases involving contamination over a broad spectrum, it concerns me when there is not a large focus on what we perceive as a health threat. It concerns me because it makes me wonder if there is more to the problem than what is known to the public. This brings me to the issue of food contamination.
Are there studies that expose which foods are more likely to be contaminated with arsenic? What about comparisons in organic vs. fresh foods. With these factors taken into consideration, I believe that this problem can be controlled. However protection must involve informing those most susceptible, and subsequent actions can then be taken from there.
I am really surprised to see that arsenic exposure is still at such high levels across the country with such advanced technology that has been developed over the last 10-15 years. I completely understand the risk of growing up on well water as I myself spent the first 18 years of my life in a well water reliant household. I never knew the correlation between arsenic exposure and respiratory problems but would love to see if the water in my household contained arsenic. Both my brother and I had terrible asthma accompanied by several rounds of both pneumonia , influenza and severe bronchitis. In my my high school alone there many families used well water to supply their homes and one particular family comes to mind. All three of the daughters as well as one of the sons had cystic fibrosis. I know that this is a genetic condition, but I am now wondering if some of their complications were worsened by the consumption of well water. Because there are still several families across the country that are dependent on well water to source their homes and farms, educating these families on possible arsenic exposure is truly something that needs to be a greater priority. Another option that I think should be available should be testing and filtration. If wells contained high levels of arsenic, is there a way to treat this water to make it more safe for consumption? With the research to support that arsenic exposure leads to respiratory damage of the fetus during pregnancy is there an options for mothers that are consuming well water to either source their water from elsewhere during their pregnancy? If so, how could these mothers be notified, and given the opportunity for a healthier pregnancy and child?
My second thought aside from actual human exposure is crop exposure. If farmers in Texas for example (one of the states with higher levels of arsenic in well water) are using this water to supply their crops, are the products harvested retaining arsenic as they are growing? As for cattle and other consumable livestock found heavily in this area, are they affected the same way, and if so can consuming meat from animals that drink water containing elevated levels of arsenic be potentially harmful?