Arsenic toxicity is exposure to toxic amounts of arsenic. Arsenic is a naturally occurring element in the earth’s crust. It has no smell or taste. If you suspect you have been exposed to arsenic, contact your doctor right away.
There are two primary forms of arsenic:
- Inorganic arsenic—arsenic combined with hydrogen, oxygen, chlorine, or sulfur; found in the environment, sometimes as a gas
- Organic arsenic—arsenic combined with carbon and hydrogen; 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
- In medicine
Arsenic toxicity may occur when a person is exposed to toxic amounts of arsenic due to:
- 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
Anyone can develop arsenic toxicity as a result of arsenic exposure. But certain people are more likely to be exposed to arsenic. The following factors increase your chances of being exposed to arsenic:
- Companies that preserve wood with arsenic
- The metal manufacturing industry
- The glass production industry
- The electronic industry
- Other industries that use arsenic
- Living in an area with high natural levels of arsenic
In addition, children may be more susceptible than adults to the health effects of arsenic. There is some evidence that arsenic exposure may harm pregnant women and their unborn babies.
Symptoms of acute arsenic exposure generally occur within 30-60 minutes after ingestion. These may include:
Gastrointestinal symptoms, such as:
- Metallic or garlic taste in the mouth
- Vomiting, possibly with blood
- Watery diarrhea
- Abdominal pain
Paralytic symptoms, such as:
- Cardiovascular system shutdown
- Central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) slows down
- Death, which can occur in hours
Symptoms of chronic arsenic exposure include:
- Recurring diarrhea
- Thickening of skin
- Discoloration of skin
- Small corns or warts on the palms, soles, and torso
- Abnormal heart rhythm
- Numbness in hands and feet
- Partial paralysis
In addition, people exposed to arsenic may be at a greater risk of developing heart disease.
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. It can be difficult to make a diagnosis of arsenic poisoning because symptoms are so varied. If you have concerns about arsenic causing symptoms in yourself or a family member, talk to your doctor.
Your bodily fluids and tissues may be tested. This can be done with:
- Blood tests
- Urine tests
- Hair or fingernail analysis
There is no effective treatment for arsenic toxicity. There is increasing evidence that chelation therapy may benefit some people who were poisoned with arsenic. Chelation therapy 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.
If chelation is not indicated or is ineffective, your treatment will be designed to help manage and control your symptoms. Treatment may include IV hydration, for example.
To help reduce your chances of getting arsenic toxicity, take the following steps:
- If you work with arsenic-treated wood at home, wear a dust mask, gloves, and protective clothing. Do not burn any wood that has been treated with arsenic compounds.
- If you live in an area with high natural levels of arsenic, use cleaner sources of water and limit contact with soil. If you have well water, have it tested for a variety of contaminants, including arsenic.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
United States Environmental Protection Agency
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety
Arsenic. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry website. Available at: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/substances/toxsubstance.asp?toxid=3. Updated March 3, 2011. Accessed February 16, 2015.
Arsenic and drinking water from private wells. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/drinking/private/wells/disease/arsenic.html. Updated May 3, 2010. Accessed February 16, 2015.
Arsenic—ToxFAQs. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry website. Available at: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxfaqs/tfacts2.pdf. Updated August 2007. Accessed February 16, 2015.
Acute arsenic poisoning. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated December 4, 2012. Accessed February 16, 2015.
Chen Y, Graziano JH, Parvez F, et al. Arsenic exposure from drinking water and mortality from cardiovascular disease in Bangladesh: prospective cohort study. BMJ. 2011;342:d2431.
Chronic arsenic poisoning. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated November 30, 2012. Accessed February 16, 2015.
Fourth national report on exposure to environmental chemicals. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/exposurereport/pdf/FourthReport.pdf. Published 2009. Accessed February 16, 2015.
Last reviewed February 2015 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.