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by Kimberly Allen, RN Arsenic Arsenic is on the top 10 list of the World Health Organizations most lethal chemicals so when you hear...

by Kimberly Allen, RN


Arsenic is on the top 10 list of the World Health Organizations most lethal chemicals so when you hear studies have found arsenic in a variety of foods and drink products ranging from chicken and rice to apple juice it raises some concern.

Arsenic is a natural element in the earths crust.  It can be found throughout the environment in the water, air, and soil.  Arsenic compounds can be either organic or inorganic.  The main difference between organic and inorganic arsenic is that organic arsenic contains a carbon – hydrogen or C-H bonds, where as inorganic compounds do not.  Organic arsenic compounds are associated with living organisms like sugars, fats, and proteins as well as enzymes and nucleic acids.  While inorganic arsenic compounds are associated with substances made from a single element and do not contain a C-H bond like salts and metals as well as carbon dioxide.  Diamonds which are pure carbon are also considered inorganic.  Most experts agree that while exposure to organic arsenic compounds is harmless prolonged exposure to inorganic arsenic compounds pose a significant health risk.

rice farmer

Arsenic contamination in ground water has become a problem for crops like rice that rely on lots of water.

According to the World Health Organization “the greatest threat to public health from arsenic originates from contaminated ground water.”  Inorganic arsenic exists naturally at high levels in the ground water of several countries including the US.  Using this contaminated water to irrigate crops and water live stock as well as for drinking and to prepare food are the main sources of exposure.  This means that meat, poultry, and dairy products as well as fruits, vegetables and cereals can contain inorganic arsenic compounds from exposure to contaminated ground water.  While seafood is also high in arsenic it is the organic arsenic compounds which are much less toxic.

In recent years, arsenic in our food and drink products has gotten a lot of attention even though many experts feel that the levels either are too low to cause damage or they are organic compounds which are considered harmless.  though the EPA has regulated the amount of arsenic that can be in drinking water there has been no limits or guidelines placed on arsenic levels in food or drink products.  That is until now.  After much encouragement from various consumer groups the US FDA has been conducting it’s own investigation and has for the first time set limits for arsenic levels in both food and drink products.  The FDA plans to use the same guidelines as the EPA uses for drinking water.  Inorganic arsenic compounds must be limited to 10 parts per billion.

Prolonged exposure to arsenic can lead to a variety of significant health issues – including cancer.  The symptoms of arsenic poisoning vary depending on the type and concentration of arsenic you were exposed to.  While organic arsenic is relatively harmless inorganic arsenic can cause severe abdominal pain with nausea and vomiting as well as destroy red blood cells.  If you ingested the arsenic your bowel may also need to be cleansed.  In chronic arsenic poisoning there is no specific treatment though many doctors will begin chelation therapy.  Chelation therapy is the use of medications that bind and inactivate substances.  The most common used chelation agent is Dimercapro.  The agent binds the arsenic so it can then be excreted in your urine.

People that suffer from acute arsenic poisoning have a much lower rate of survival than those with chronic arsenic exposure.  Those that do survive tend to develop some degree of damage to the peripheral nerves.  Many also suffer from long term cardiac, renal and liver as well as skin problems.  People suffer from chronic arsenic poisoning usually have better outcomes.

leadLead poisoning

According to the CDC there are at least 4 million households in the US that have children that are being exposed to lead living in them.  There are also approximately half a million children from 1 to 5 years of age that have blood levels of lead higher than what is recommended by the CDC, which is 5 micrograms per deciliter.  Over exposure to lead is also one of the most common forms of overexposure reported in the workplace today as well as being one of the most frequent causes of workplace illness.  Exposure to lead can affect almost every system in your body.

Lead is considered to be a ‘heavy metal’ as well as a poor metal.  Lead can be found everywhere from batteries to construction materials.  It can also be found in levels that can be hazardous to your health in your food and water, even the air you breath.  Lead poisoning is the number one cause of “environmentally induced” illness in children.  Children that are less than 6 years of age are at a greater risk because it is a time of rapid physical and neurological development.lead poison graph

Lead poisoning can either be acute or chronic.  Acute lead toxicity results from being exposed to high levels of lead in a short period of time while on the other hand chronic lead toxicity results from being exposed to small amounts of lead over a long period of time.  Because lead can cause damage wherever it goes in your body the fact that it is spread throughout your body in the same manor as the ‘good’ minerals like calcium, iron, and zinc it is particularly dangerous.  Most lead finds it’s way to your bones where it cause numerous problems including interfering with the production of blood cells.  It also interferes with the absorption of calcium needed for healthy bone growth.  Calcium is not only essential for strong bones and teeth but for blood vessel and nerve function as well as muscle contraction.  Lead can also damage the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen to your organs and tissues leading to severe anemia.

Children that develop lead toxicity tend to demonstrate a variety of health problems including poor bone and muscle growth as well as poor muscle coordination.  They will also have damage to the nervous system and kidneys as well as their hearing which can lead to difficulty with speech and language.  Most also demonstrate delays in development .  If the lead concentrations are extremely high the child can also have seizures and experience unconsciousness.

Although lead poisoning is primarily thought of as a condition that affects children it can also affect adults.  The most common symptoms of lead toxicity in adults are a decline in cognitive function, including memory.  Headaches and muscle weakness along with numbness and/or tingling in your extremities are common as well.  Many also experience severe abdominal pain.  Adults with lead toxicity also tend to have a high blood pressure and suffer from mood disorders.

Treatment of lead poisoning depends on the amount of lead in your blood and the severity of symptoms.  For both adults and children with mild symptoms and fairly low levels of lead stopping and avoiding future exposure may be sufficient to reduce the lead levels in your blood.  For more severe cases your doctor may recommend chelation therapy.  In chelation therapy you are given a medication that will bind the lead so it can be excreted in your urine.  For people with lead levels that are higher than 45mcg/dl of blood your Dr may recommend EDTA therapy.  You may require more than one treatment of your lead level is extremely high.

Prevention is the best way to protect your family from lead poisoning.  Some easy but effective measures you can take including regular hand washing especially after outdoor play or gardening activities.  Use a damp cloth to wipe any dusty surfaces to prevent lead dust from circulating in the air.  If your home has older plumbing run your cold water for at least one minute before using.  Remove or cover any lead paint in your home and don’t eat or drink in any areas where there may be lead dust present.

Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at