This fact sheet answers the most frequently asked health questions (FAQs) about arsenic. For more information, call the ATSDR Information Center at 1-800-232-4636. This fact sheet is one in a series of summaries about hazardous substances and their health effects. It is important you understand this information because this substance may harm you. The effects of exposure to any hazardous substance depend on the dose, the duration, how you are exposed, personal traits and habits, and whether other chemicals are present.
Exposure to higher than average levels of arsenic occur mostly in the workplace, near hazardous waste sites, or in areas with high natural levels. At high levels, inorganic arsenic can cause death. Exposure to lower levels for a long time can cause a discoloration of the skin and the appearance of small corns or warts. Arsenic has been found in at least 1,149 of the 1,684 National Priority List sites identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
What is arsenic?
Arsenic is a naturally occurring element widely distributed in the earth’s crust. In the environment, arsenic is combined with oxygen, chlorine, and sulfur to form inorganic arsenic compounds. Arsenic in animals and plants combines with carbon and hydrogen to form organic arsenic compounds.
Inorganic arsenic compounds are mainly used to preserve wood. Copper chromated arsenate (CCA) is used to make “pressure-treated” lumber. CCA is no longer used in the U.S. for residential uses; it is still used in industrial applications. Organic arsenic compounds are used as pesticides, primarily on cotton fields and orchards.
What happens to arsenic when it enters the environment?
- Arsenic occurs naturally in soil and minerals and may enter the air, water, and land from wind-blown dust and may get into water from runoff and leaching.
- Arsenic cannot be destroyed in the environment. It can only change its form.
- Rain and snow remove arsenic dust particles from the air.
- Many common arsenic compounds can dissolve in water. Most of the arsenic in water will ultimately end up in soil or sediment.
- Fish and shellfish can accumulate arsenic; most of this arsenic is in an organic form called arsenobetaine that is much less harmful.
How might I be exposed to arsenic?
- Ingesting small amounts present in your food and water or breathing air containing arsenic.
- Breathing sawdust or burning smoke from wood treated with arsenic.
- Living in areas with unusually high natural levels of arsenic in rock.
- Working in a job that involves arsenic production or use, such as copper or lead smelting, wood treating, or pesticide application.
How can arsenic affect my health?
Breathing high levels of inorganic arsenic can give you a sore throat or irritated lungs.
Ingesting very high levels of arsenic can result in death. Exposure to lower levels can cause nausea and vomiting, decreased production of red and white blood cells, abnormal heart rhythm, damage to blood vessels, and a sensation of “pins and needles” in hands and feet.
Ingesting or breathing low levels of inorganic arsenic for a long time can cause a darkening of the skin and the appearance of small “corns” or “warts” on the palms, soles, and torso.
Skin contact with inorganic arsenic may cause redness and swelling.
Almost nothing is known regarding health effects of organic arsenic compounds in humans. Studies in animals show that some simple organic arsenic compounds are less toxic than inorganic forms. Ingestion of methyl and dimethyl compounds can cause diarrhea and damage to the kidneys.
How likely is arsenic to cause cancer?
Several studies have shown that ingestion of inorganic arsenic can increase the risk of skin cancer and cancer in the liver, bladder, and lungs. Inhalation of inorganic arsenic can cause increased risk of lung cancer. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the EPA have determined that inorganic arsenic is a known human carcinogen. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that inorganic arsenic is carcinogenic to humans.
How does arsenic affect children?
There is some evidence that long-term exposure to arsenic in children may result in lower IQ scores. There is also some evidence that exposure to arsenic in the womb and early childhood may increase mortality in young adults.
There is some evidence that inhaled or ingested arsenic can injure pregnant women or their unborn babies, although the studies are not definitive. Studies in animals show that large doses of arsenic that cause illness in pregnant females, can also cause low birth weight, fetal malformations, and even fetal death. Arsenic can cross the placenta and has been found in fetal tissues. Arsenic is found at low levels in breast milk.
How can families reduce their risk for exposure to arsenic?
- If you use arsenic-treated wood in home projects, you should wear dust masks, gloves, and protective clothing to decrease exposure to sawdust.
- If you live in an area with high levels of arsenic in water or soil, you should use cleaner sources of water and limit contact with soil.
- If you work in a job that may expose you to arsenic, be aware that you may carry arsenic home on your clothing, skin, hair, or tools. Be sure to shower and change clothes before going home.
Is there a medical test to show whether I've been exposed to arsenic?
There are tests available to measure arsenic in your blood, urine, hair, and fingernails. The urine test is the most reliable test for arsenic exposure within the last few days. Tests on hair and fingernails can measure exposure to high levels of arsenic over the past 6-12 months. These tests can determine if you have been exposed to above-average levels of arsenic. They cannot predict whether the arsenic levels in your body will affect your health.
Has the federal government made recommendations to protect human health?
The EPA has set limits on the amount of arsenic that industrial sources can release to the environment and has restricted or cancelled many of the uses of arsenic in pesticides. EPA has set a limit of 0.01 parts per million (ppm) for arsenic in drinking water.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set a permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 10 micrograms of arsenic per cubic meter of workplace air (10 μg/m3) for 8 hour shifts and 40 hour work weeks.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2007. Toxicological Profile for Arsenic (Update). Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.
Where can I get more information?
For more information, contact:
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Division of Toxicology and Environmental Medicine
1600 Clifton Road NE, Mailstop F-32
Atlanta, GA 30333
Phone: 1- 800-232-4636 / TTY: 888-232-6348
ATSDR can tell you where to find occupational and environmental health clinics. Their specialists can recognize, evaluate, and treat illnesses resulting from exposure to hazardous substances. You can also contact your community or state health or environmental quality department if you have any more questions or concerns.