Arsenic: How Much is Too Much in Drinking Water?

Arsenic is a toxic chemical that’s unevenly distributed in the earth’s crust. In places where its highly concentrated within rocky drinking water aquifers, arsenic can contaminate drinking water causing dangerous exposure. The resulting side effects of arsenic exposure include respiratory problems, cardiovascular disease, and cancers of the skin, bladder, and lungs. It was formerly thought that only high dose exposure resulted in illness, but new research begs to differ. Prenatal and early childhood exposure is especially problematic because it can increase a child’s risk of lung cancer and respiratory disease later in life.

Trace amounts of arsenic in the body interfere with the tumor suppressing hormone glucocorticoid, while damaging lung cells and causing inflammation in the heart. Researchers are able to study the potential impact of arsenic by looking at arsenic hotspots like Bangladesh. Researchers at the University of Chicago found residents of Bangladesh who took in as little as 19 parts per billion (ppb) had reduced lung function and at 120 ppb, their ability to take in oxygen was reduced. 

“Bangladesh is unfortunately a living laboratory for the health effects of arsenic,” said Habibul Ahsan, the lead author of the study and director of the Center for Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention at the University of Chicago to The New York Times.

Now researchers are looking at the toxin in Southwestern states where wells can contain arsenic levels of more than 500 ppb and in the upper Midwest, where arsenic-laden bedrock may contaminate aquifers. 

In 1974, Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act, which regulated that municipal water supplies must be constantly tested to meet a required standard of 10 ppb, but that same testing isn’t done on private water supplies such as well water. In February 2000, NRDC complied data of drinking water in 25 states and conservative estimates show that 34 million Americans were drinking tap water containing average levels of arsenic that posed unacceptable cancer risks

If you’re worried about your individual risk of arsenic exposure in your drinking water know that boiling water does not remove arsenic. Rather, you should consider treatment methods such as reverse osmosis, ultra-filtration, distillation, or ion exchange.

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Image: akaKath