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What is Arsenic?

Arsenic is a metallic element that occurs naturally in the earth’s crust and is widely distributed in air, water, and land. It has no odor or taste. It is a known poison.

See also: Brownfield Construction Factories Food and Cooking Drinking Water Air Pollution Cardiovascular (Heart) Disease Cancer Learning and Developmental Disabilities Reproductive Health Asthma and other Lung Diseases

Where is Arsenic found?

  • Consumer products - primarily in wood preservatives, tobacco products, metal adhesives, and pigments
  • Groundwater
  • Air - released by volcanoes, mining, and smelter. It is released by tobacco smoke and by burning wood treated with arsenic.
  • Natural environment - occurs naturally in small quantities in rocks and soil. Uranium mines may contain arsenic.

How can I be exposed to Arsenic?

Arsenic commonly enter(s) the body through:


Ingestion (swallowing)

  • Drinking water or eating food that contains arsenic

Inhalation (breathing)

  • Smoking tobacco products, breathing secondhand smoke, or breathing air that contains arsenic emissions

Skin contact

  • Touching arsenic or products made with arsenic

What happens when I am exposed to Arsenic?


Ingesting lower levels of arsenic can cause:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Decreased production of red and white blood cells
  • Abnormal heart rhythm
  • Damage to blood vessels
  • A sensation of "pins and needles" in hands and feet

Ingesting very high levels of arsenic can result in severe health consequences, including death.

Breathing high levels of inorganic arsenic can give you a sore throat or irritated lungs.

Skin contact with inorganic arsenic may cause redness and swelling.


Ingesting or breathing low levels of inorganic arsenic for a long time can cause:

  • Darkening of the skin
  • Appearance of small "corns" or "warts" on the palms, soles, and torso
  • Cancer

Who is at risk for exposure to Arsenic?

  • Consumers –some consumer products (e.g., wood preservatives, tobacco products, pesticides) and contaminated food and water contain arsenic.
  • Cigarette smokers - tobacco products and secondhand smoke contain arsenic.
  • Pregnant women- exposure to arsenic can harm a developing fetus.

Reduce your risk

If you think your health has been affected by exposure to arsenic, contact your health care professional.

Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling chemicals. For poisoning emergencies or questions about possible poisons, please contact your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.

  • Do you, or does anyone in your household, smoke tobacco products?
  • Do you use arsenic-treated wood in home projects?
  • Do you live in an area with high levels of arsenic in the water?
  • Do you use well water?
  • Do you use arsenic-based pesticides?
  • Do not burn arsenic-treated wood.
  • Avoid arsenic-based pesticides.
  • Wear protective clothing if you work with arsenic-treated wood or arsenic-based pesticides.
  • Review your municipal water report.
  • Routinely test well water for arsenic levels. If it has high levels of arsenic, contact your local or state health agency or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for information on how to reduce your exposure.
  • If you have been exposed to arsenic, change clothing before entering your home.
  • If you smoke, quit. Avoid secondhand smoke.

National Library of Medicine Resources and Databases

  • Arsenic: Health Information Resources
    Links to health resources in English and Spanish on arsenic, including background information; regulations and policy; specific aspects; blogs, news, podcasts, and videos; topic related searches from the National Library of Medicine; and selection guidelines.
  • Arsenic Compounds. Hazardous Substances Data Bank
    Search results on arsenic compounds from a toxicology database that focuses on the toxicology of potentially hazardous chemicals.

Additional Resources

  • Protect Yourself from Arsenic in Your Well Water
    North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services
    Resource for protecting yourself from arsenic in well water, including identification, associated health effects, and links for additional information.
  • Arsenic
    World Health Organization
    Information in English, Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian, and Spanish on arsenic, including key facts, and sources of exposure in water, food, industrial processes, and tobacco. This website also describes acute and long-term health effects of arsenic exposure, as well as methods of prevention and control, and the response of the agency that directs international health.
  • What Is Arsenic?
    Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center
    Resource on arsenic that includes information on its sources, uses, exposure, and resulting health effects.
  • Arsenic. ToxFAQs
    Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
    Factsheet with answers to most frequently asked questions about arsenic exposure and its effect on human health, developed by a federal public health agency that protects communities from harmful health effects related to exposure to natural and man-made hazardous substances.
  • Chromated Arsenicals (CCA)
    Environmental Protection Agency
    Information on chromated arsenicals (CCA), including how to dispose of items treated with this group of pesticides safely.

Science Classroom (Grades 6-8)

Enhance your education on toxic chemicals in our environment using lesson plans, games and activities, videos, informational websites, and more.

Arsenic and Rice
Science Buddies
An article that explains how arsenic, a naturally occurring heavy metal and poison, occurs in soil, and may be present in many foods, including rice.

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National Library of Medicine
While eating lunch, three students begin to wonder about the safety of eating foods that contain arsenic. Through their research, they will discover where arsenic is found, how it is used, and its effects on human health.
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