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Arsenic is a heavy metal, with the atomic number of 33, that can be found as a contaminant in food and water sources. Shellfish and other seafood, as well as fruits, vegetables and rice; are the foods most commonly contaminated. Arsenic poisoning typically occurs as a result of industrial exposure, from contaminated wine or illegally distilled spirits.


Inorganic arsenic compounds are much more poisonous to most biologic systems (animals, plants, humans) than organic arsenic. Inorganic arsenic occurs in nature in the soil, copper and lead ore deposits and water but usually in low concentrations. However, it can become more concentrated when industrial processes use it to make wood preservatives, metal compounds or organic arsenic-containing compounds such as insecticides, weed killers and other compounds. If such compounds are burned, inorganic arsenic can be released into the air and later settle on the ground or in water and either remain in the inorganic form or combine with organic material.


Arsenic is highly toxic to life forms, except some types of bacteria, and if it has been ingested orally, the first signs and symptoms of arsenic poisoning will appear within thirty minutes, and may include the following:

  • Confusion

  • Diarrhoea

  • Drowsiness

  • Headaches

If the arsenic has been inhaled, or a less concentrated amount has been ingested, symptoms may take longer to emerge. As the arsenic poisoning develops, the patient may start suffering convulsions and their fingernail pigmentation may change (leukonychia). The following signs and symptoms are associated in more severe cases of arsenic poisoning:

  • Abdominal pain

  • Blood in the urine

  • Breath smells like garlic

  • Cardiac problems

  • Cramping muscles

  • Convulsions

  • Death

  • Dehydration

  • Delirium

  • Excessive sweating

  • Haemolysis (destruction of red blood cells)

  • Loss of hair

  • Metallic taste in the mouth

  • Mouth produces excess saliva

  • Peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage to extremities)

  • Problems swallowing

  • Shock

  • Stomach cramps

  • Vertigo

  • Vomiting

Long-term exposures to arsenic lower than toxic levels can lead to skin changes (darkening or discoloration, redness, swelling and hyperkeratosis (skin bumps that resemble corns or warts). Whitish lines (Mees' lines) may appear in the fingernails. Both sensory and motor nerve defects can develop. Additionally, liver and kidney function may be affected. Studies of people in parts of Southeast Asia and South America, where there has been a high level of arsenic in the drinking water, have reported an increased risk of developing cancers of the bladder, kidney, lung and skin.


Sources of arsenic

  • Apple juice, glues, pigments and wine.

  • Milk and dairy products, beef, pork, poultry and cereal.

  • Many water sources in the world have high levels of arsenic in them, both due to normal arsenic leaching out of the ground and from mining and industrial waste.

  • Arsenic is also often found in rice, which may be a potentially serious source of exposure in certain at-risk populations (especially children)

Rice absorbs arsenic from soil or water much more effectively than most plants. That's in part because it is one of the only major crops grown in water-flooded conditions, which allow arsenic to be more easily taken up by its roots and stored in the grains... When rice is grown in soils after cotton they are likely to be contaminated as cotton was a crop that was heavily treated with arsenical pesticides for decades in part to combat the boll weevil beetle.


NOTE: Rice cooked boiled dry in a pan can contain high levels of arsenic as it is reabsorbed by the rice and should only be consumed two to three times a week. It has been found that when cooked in the filter part of a coffee percolator, arsenic levels are reduced by 85%. Stove top percolators are not suitable, only the drip-brewers will work. However, cooking this way is time consuming as most coffee percolators run on ten minute cycles. White rice takes twenty minutes and brown rice takes forty minutes. Eventually a suitable machine may be developed for the sole purpose of cooking rice.


To remove arsenic from the system see Heavy Metals.


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