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Arsenic i s an elemental metalloid that has an atomic number of 33 and symbol “As” in the periodic table. Its name originates from the Greek word Arsenikon (meaning potent). It is a common element found in nature, although not in its pure elemental form but rather in ores and sulfides. Arsenic is commonly found in geologic sediments and rocks, generally in the forms of arsenopyrite, orpiment, realgar, lollingite, and tennantite. Arsenic is usually a grayish or yellowish element, and it sublimes into its oxide form upon heating.
Arsenic occurs in high amounts in the sediments of many countries, most notably Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, China, the United States (primarily the southwest), and Argentina.
Arsenic is commonly used in pesticides, herbicides, alloys, and semiconductor material. It has historically has been used in paint (e.g., Paris Green), pressure-treated wood, cosmetics, and antibiotics (among various other medicinal purposes). However, such uses have largely been discontinued due to the toxic nature of arsenic. Arsenic is extremely poisonous, and small quantities can kill instantly. As such, arsenic has often been called the “king of poisons” and the “poison of kings,” due to its historical use in alleged and real deaths and murders, and difficulty of detection. Arsenic has been linked to the deaths of famous figures, such as Napoleon Bonaparte and King George III.
In recent years, concerns about arsenic in groundwater and drinking water supplies have become a major concern. The World Health Organization (WHO) advises that drinking water should not have more than 10 microgram/liter (or parts per billion, ppb) of arsenic, as higher doses can prove to be cumulatively toxic. Arsenic ingestion can lead to gastrointestinal problems, headaches, and nausea when in smaller doses, but higher doses and chronic poisoning can lead to melanosis and keratosis of the skin, liver and kidney failure, heart problems, gangrenes, cancer, and eventually death. As such, small quantities of arsenic in drinking water (from naturally occurring arsenic in the geology or from agricultural and industrial pollution) can lead to various health symptoms of arsenic poisoning (also often called arsenicosis) over numbers of years.
One of the worst cases of arsenic poisoning is in Bangladesh, where over 35 million people are consuming well water with high concentrations of arsenic. The arsenic in geologic deposits has shown up in high concentrations in groundwater that is predominantly used for drinking water and irrigation purposes. Tests of well water have shown that over 2 million tubewells contain arsenic that is greater than the Bangladesh government’s standards of allowable arsenic (at 50 microgram/liter or 50 ppb); note that this standard is not the same as the WHO’s standard. Drinking water with more than 50 ppb of arsenic generally means that the person has one in 100 chance of getting cancer; presently there are over 40,000 arsenicosis patients in Bangladesh; the figures are expected to rise as more patients are identified, and because symptoms can take 5 to 15 years to fully manifest themselves. Given the large number of people currently consuming poisoned water with inadequate alternative water sources, the WHO has termed the case the “worst mass poisoning of a people in history.” Present attempts to provide safe water include removing arsenic from contaminated water and nongroundwater-based water options.
In the United States, arsenic in drinking water supplies caused considerable debate in the last few years. The change of government standards from 50 ppb to 10 ppb meant a greater investment in removal costs. Some politicians argued that the standard should have been below 10 ppb, in order to make water more arsenic-free; the costs involved as well as the lack of compelling need to do so are generally argued to be reasons of retaining the WHO’s recommended standard. How much arsenic is deemed safe is thus both a scientific and technological issue as well as an economic and political one.
- Feroze Ahmed, , Arsenic Contamination: Bangladesh Perspective (Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, 2003);
- Andrew Meharg, Venomous Earth-How Arsenic Caused the World’s Worst Mass Poisoning (Macmillan Science, 2005).