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Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry Fact Sheet contains the following information on arsenic.
Summary: Exposure to higher than average levels of arsenic happens mostly in the workplace near hazardous waste sites, or in areas with high natural levels. Arsenic is a powerful poison. At high levels, it can cause death or illness. This chemical has been found in at least 781 of 1,300 National Priorities List sites identified by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Arsenic is found in nature at low levels. It’s mostly in compounds with oxygen, chlorine, and sulfur. These are called inorganic arsenic compounds. Arsenic in plants and animals combines with carbon and hydrogen. This is called organic arsenic. Organic arsenic is usually less harmful than inorganic arsenic. Most arsenic compounds have no smell or special taste.
Inorganic arsenic compounds are mainly used to preserve wood. They are also used to make insecticides and weed killers. You can check the labels of treated wood and insecticides to see if they contain arsenic. Copper and lead ores contain small amounts of arsenic.
High levels of inorganic arsenic in food or water can be fatal. A high level is 60 (60 ppm). Arsenic damages many tissues including nerves, stomach and intestines, and skin. Breathing high levels can give you a sore throat and irritated lungs.
Lower levels of exposure to inorganic arsenic may cause:
Long-term exposure to inorganic arsenic may lead to darkening of the skin and the appearance of small "corns" or "warts" on the palms, soles and torso. Direct skin contact may cause redness and swelling.
The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has determined that arsenic is a known carcinogen. Breathing inorganic arsenic increases the risk of lung cancer. Ingesting inorganic arsenic increases risk of skin cancer and tumors of the bladder, kidney, liver and lung.
Tests can measure your exposure to high levels of arsenic. These tests are not routinely performed in a doctor’s office. Arsenic can be measured in your urine. This is the most reliable test for arsenic exposure. Since arsenic stays in your body only for a short time, you must have the test soon after exposure.
Tests on hair or fingernails can measure your exposure to high levels of arsenic over the past 6-12 months. These tests are not very useful for low-level exposures. These tests do not predict whether you will have any harmful health effects.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets limits on the amount of arsenic that industrial sources can release. It has restricted or canceled many uses of arsenic in pesticides and may restrict more. EPA set a limit of 0.05 parts per million (ppm) for arsenic in drinking water. EPA may lower this further.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) established a maximum permissible exposure limit for workplace airborne arsenic of 10 micrograms per cubic meter.
ATSDR can tell you where to find occupational and environmental health clinics. Their specialists can recognize, evaluate, and treat illnesses resulting from exposure to hazardous substances. You can also contact your community or state healthy or environmental quality department if you have any more questions or concerns. For more information, contact: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Division of Toxicology, 1600 Clifton Road NE, Mailstop E-29, Atlanta, GA 30333, Phone (404) 639-6000.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ASTDR). 1993.
Toxicological profile for arsenic.
Atlanta: US Department of Health and Human Service.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ASTDR). 1993. Case studies in environmental medicine: Arsenic toxicity. Atlanta: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.