Arsenic poisoning or arsenicosis is a condition caused by the ingestion, absorption or inhalation of dangerous levels of arsenic. Arsenic is a natural semi-metallic chemical that is found all over the world in groundwater.
In some areas of the world, natural levels of arsenic in the water are extremely dangerous and hard to detect; arsenic typically has no flavor or odor. Arsenic can also be found in some industries, whether it be contained within a chemical used, or the byproduct of a certain process.
Arsenic poisoning can cause major health complications if not treated, including death. Because of the risks involved, some precautions are required to protect the populations and workers at risk of arsenic poisoning.
Arsenic has proven to be potentially useful in cancer treatment, as some studies have shown it can send the disease into remission and help thin the blood. This treatment is still being tested, but could show some promise in the ongoing battle against cancer.
According to Medilexicon's medical dictionary, Arsenis (As) is:
"1. A metallic element, atomic no. 33, atomic wt. 74.92159; forms a number of poisonous compounds, some of which are used in medicine.
2. Denoting the element arsenic or one of its compounds, especially arsenic acid."
What are the signs and symptoms of arsenic poisoning?A symptom is felt by the sufferer and described to the doctors, such as pain or dizziness, while a sign is noticed by other people too. Examples of signs include a rash, pallor, or swelling.
If the arsenic has been ingested orally, the first signs and symptoms of arsenic poisoning will appear within thirty minutes, and may include some of the following:
The following signs and symptoms are associated in more severe cases of arsenic poisoning:
- metallic taste in the mouth
- mouth produces excess saliva
- problems swallowing
- blood in the urine
- cramping muscles
- loss of hair
- stomach cramps
- excessive sweating
- breath smells like garlic
What causes arsenic poisoning and what are the complications?Arsenic, when consumed in large amounts, can kill a person rapidly, but when consumed in smaller amounts over the long-term, it can cause serious illness, or a prolonged death.
Illnesses, conditions and complications linked to long-term arsenic consumption include:
- liver disease
- nervous system complications - such as loss of sensation in the limbs and hearing problems
- digestive difficulties
In 2007, research was carried out to see how arsenic poisoning affects the human population worldwide. It showed that more than 130 million people could be affected by arsenic-contaminated drinking water.
Some industries, which use inorganic arsenic and its compounds, may pose risks for workers if proper safety measures are not taken. Examples of these industries include:
- glass production
- wood treatment
- production and use of (some) pesticides
There are also traces of arsenic in some foods, such as meat, poultry and fish. Normally poultry contains the highest levels of arsenic, due to the chicken feed containing particular types of antibiotics. Also, rice has been found to potentially contain higher levels of arsenic than water.
How can arsenic poisoning be prevented?The following measures can help protect people from arsenic that gets into groundwater:
- Households having arsenic removal systems - this is a short term solution that can be adopted until the arsenic contamination can be dealt with at the source.
- Testing the water for traces of arsenic.
- Taking care when harvesting rainwater - in areas where there is high rainfall, arsenic poisoning can be prevented by ensuring the process of collection is acceptable, does not put the water at risk of infection, or cause the water to become a breeding ground for mosquitos.
- Well depth - the deeper a well is dug, the less arsenic its water is likely to have.
Another important preventative measure is to have health care staff check people at risk for the early signs of arsenic poisoning.
How is arsenic poisoning diagnosed?In areas and occupations where there is a risk of arsenic poisoning, it is important to monitor the levels of arsenic in the people at risk. Levels of arsenic can be measured by taking blood, hair, urine, and fingernail samples.
Urine tests would have to be carried out within 1-2 days of the initial exposure, making it an accurate indicator of when the arsenic poisoning occurred. These tests can also be used to help diagnose cases where symptoms of arsenic poisoning are apparent.
To determine the level of arsenic exposure over a period of up to 12 months, tests on hair and fingernails can be performed. Although these tests can give an accurate indication of arsenic exposure levels, they do not indicate what effects they will have on the patient's health.
How can arsenic poisoning be treated?The type of treatment method used depends on the type and stage of the arsenic poisoning. Some methods remove arsenic from the human body before it gets a chance to do any damage, some repair or minimize the damage that has already occured. Treatment methods include:
- bowel irrigation - large amounts of an osmotically balanced polyethylene glycol solution is passed through the entire gastrointestinal tract to flush it out. This removes traces of arsenic and prevents it from being absorbed into the gut.
- removing clothes that could possibly be contaminated with arsenic
- thoroughly washing and rinsing skin that has been affected
- blood transfusions
- taking heart medication - if the heart starts failing
- use of mineral supplements - these may help lower the risk of potentially fatal heart rhythm problem
- observing kidney function
- chelation therapy - uses certain chemicals (dimercaptosuccinic acid & dimercaprol) to isolate the arsenic from the blood proteins
Written by Mike Paddock