Arsenic may be found in drinking water, treated wood, and industrial sites.
What is arsenic?
Arsenic is a silver-gray or white-metallic element that occurs naturally in the earth's crust. It is odorless and nearly tasteless. The chemical symbol for arsenic is As. How might I be exposed to arsenic?
Pure arsenic is a metal and is rare in the environment; arsenic is usually found combined with one or more other elements, such as oxygen or chlorine. Arsenic is also produced as a by-product from the operation of copper, cobalt, and lead smelters. Abandoned uranium mines may contain arsenic in the soil and water.
Arsenic compounds are used primarily in wood preservatives; in pesticides, primarily on cotton plants; as alloying, or tempering, agents for heavy metals; in the manufacture of certain kinds of glass; and in solders and medicines.
You can be exposed to arsenic by breathing contaminated air at work; breathing sawdust or smoke from burning wood treated with arsenic; or eating food, drinking water, or breathing air that contains arsenic. How can arsenic affect my health?
Exposure can also come from living in areas near copper or lead smelters, industrialized areas where large quantities of arsenic are disposed of in landfills or hazardous waste sites, or areas with unusually high natural levels of arsenic in rock.
Arsenic is a known poison; consuming or breathing in large quantities of arsenic can cause death. It is also listed as a human carcinogen in the Twelfth Report on Carcinogens published by the National Toxicology Program because it has been shown to cause skin, lung, bladder, liver, kidney, and prostate cancer.
Exposure to arsenic may increase the risk of damage to a developing fetus. Exposure to lower levels of arsenic can cause nausea, vomiting, abnormal heart rhythm, decreased production of red and white blood cells, impaired nerve function, damage to blood vessels, skin warts and corns, and red or swelling skin.
Repeated exposure to arsenic can damage the liver and kidneys, cause stomach problems, and cause a darkening of the skin. Breathing high levels of arsenic can cause a sore throat or irritated lungs.
If you think you have been exposed to arsenic, contact your health care professional.
For poisoning emergencies or questions about possible poisons, please contact your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.
This description is based on the information found in the Web links listed with this topic.
Web Links from MedlinePlus (National Library of Medicine)
Arsenic and Human Health (National Library of Medicine)
Arsenic and Inorganic Compounds. Haz-Map (National Library of Medicine)
Arsenic Compounds. Hazardous Substances Data Bank (National Library of Medicine)
Arsenic in Drinking Water (Environmental Protection Agency)
Arsenic. ToxFAQs (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry)
Chromated Copper Arsenate (Environmental Protection Agency)
FDA Looks for Answers on Arsenic in Rice (Food and Drug Administration)
Map of Superfund Hazardous Waste Sites with Arsenic in the United States. TOXMAP (National Library of Medicine)
ToxGuide for Arsenic (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry) (PDF — 6 KB)
What Is Arsenic (Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center) (PDF — 213.30 KB)
Last Updated: January 29, 2014