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Also known as ‘arsenicosis’, arsenic poisoning is a serious, sometimes lethal health condition triggered by acute or chronic exposure to elevated levels of arsenic—a toxic, metalloid element that’s found in our natural environment and in specific industries . Although we might associate arsenic poisoning with murder mysteries and the supposed death of Napoleon Bonaparte, arsenic poisoning is primarily caused by continual exposure to contaminated drinking water .
But contaminated water is not the only cause of arsenic poisoning, nor is it always fatal. There are a handful of ways exposure to arsenic occurs and just as many immediate and lasting consequences.
On the hunt to find answers to the question, "What is arsenic poisoning?" You’re in the right place. Read on for our guidance surrounding the topic.
What is arsenic?
The arsenic compound is a naturally occurring, tasteless, and odorless substance chiefly found in the Earth’s crust and in groundwater across the globe . Countries throughout South America and Asia are the most susceptible to arsenic-contaminated drinking water, as well as the United States—such as at the bottom of the Great Salt Lake .
Arsenic is distinguished into two types:
- Organic arsenic – Organic arsenic is the less harmful of the two and is found in plants and animals. Crustaceans such as shellfish, for example, may have some level of the arsenic compound.
- Inorganic arsenic – Inorganic arsenic is confirmed as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization (WHO) . Again, it’s predominantly found in water, but it’s also present in select industries—such as mining, metallurgy, fossil fuel, and tobacco.
Where is arsenic found?
Although arsenic is highly regulated, it’s more widespread than most people may realize—particularly in the air, water, and soil. The WHO (World Health Organization) states that arsenic poses the greatest threat to human health through contaminated water that’s used for cooking, consumption, and irrigation .
Arsenic compounds are also found in:
- Cigarettes 
- Certain beverages 
- Specific foods, including fish (shellfish), meat (poultry), breakfast cereals, and dairy products 
- Wood treatments 
- Herbicides 
- Insecticides 
- Food additives 
- Pharmaceutical drugs 
- Certain paints, ceramics, and wallpaper 
Arsenic is also present in the air—such as in smelting factories and in places that see volcanic activity, such as the Big Island of Hawaii . Further, it’s found in the processing of several types of materials, including plastics, glass, pigments, paper goods, textiles, metal adhesives, and ammunitions .
Exposure to heightened levels of arsenic—either through oral consumption or inhalation—can result in poisoning.
What are the symptoms of arsenic poisoning?
The symptoms of arsenic poisoning run the gamut, and how your body and brain might respond depends on if you’ve faced sudden, severe exposure to high levels of arsenic or low levels of exposure to arsenic concentration, gradually and over time. It can also depend on whether you’ve developed a tolerance to arsenic .
A few of the most common symptoms of acute exposure may include:
- Excessive sweating in your lower extremities 
- A burning sensation in your mouth and throat 
- Muscle cramps and tenderness 
- Numbness and tingling in your extremities [2, 7]
- Spontaneous pangs of pain 
- Weakness 
- Abdominal pain 
- Vomiting and diarrhea 
- Dehydration 
- Coughing 
- Chest pain 
Some individuals who have acute arsenic poisoning may also experience renal failure after dangerous levels of long-term exposure .
Long-term exposure to arsenic may first present itself more subtly before potentially leading to graver consequences—a topic we’ll delve into next.
The WHO notes that one of the most telling signs of arsenic toxicity is dermal changes, mainly pigmentation, skin lesions, and/or hyperkeratosis—a condition that results in skin hardening on the soles of your feet and the palms of your hands . Other symptoms may include weakness and a progressive loss of strength; gastrointestinal issues such as diarrhea and constipation; and distinct “streaks” on your fingernails .
In more extreme cases of arsenic poisoning, you might be vulnerable to paralysis and death.
What are the long-term health effects of arsenic poisoning?
So, what are the effects of heavy metals in the body? Arsenic poisoning has been linked to a host of health complications. It may cause or contribute to the onset of several diseases, including:
- Cancer – Ongoing exposure to high arsenic levels may heighten your vulnerability to a few specific cancers, namely skin, bladder, and lung cancer . Some research indicates it may also cause kidney and liver cancer .
- Cardiovascular disease – Cardiovascular disease is recognized by the WHO as the leading cause of death around the globe [1, 8]. Two of the biggest threats of heart disease, whether it’s coronary or congenital, are heart attacks and strokes, which are typically caused by arterial buildup and, in some cases, may be fatal.
- Hepatoxicity – More commonly known as liver damage, hepatoxicity refers to inflammation of the liver, which may result in cirrhosis—or an accumulation of scar tissue on one of your body’s most essential organs—or in liver failure [1, 9].
- Diabetes – Diabetes is a lesser-known, but nonetheless prevalent, potential side effect of chronic arsenic exposure [1, 4]. Diabetes itself is just as ubiquitous, affecting approximately 37 million Americans. It has the potential to lead to vision loss, heart disease, and kidney disease . According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States .
- Neurological impairment – Arsenic compounds have the capacity to bind to your cells, and, thus, affect nearly every major organ in your body—including your brain . Both acute exposure to high levels of arsenic and chronic exposure to the poisonous substance may heighten your vulnerability to neuropathy and to a condition known as ‘encephalopathy’—an umbrella term for cognitive damage that may result in memory loss, confusion, personality changes, and/or dementia [7, 11].
- Skin changes – Arsenic poisoning also has the potential to cause a range of skin reactions, including skin lesions, hyperpigmentation, and, as mentioned above, skin cancer .
This isn’t an exhaustive list, of course (but it does underscore the wide-ranging effects of arsenic toxicity). In addition, arsenic poisoning may cause respiratory problems, such as chronic cough, as well as anemia, miscarriage, and congenital defects in infants . Arsenic contamination can also cause cognitive harm to children (in utero and for infants) and may lead to premature death .
How is arsenic poisoning treated?
Arsenic poisoning treatment depends on several factors, including whether you have acute arsenic poisoning or have suffered from long-term exposure to the substance.
- Acute arsenic toxicity – In the case of acute arsenic poisoning, a healthcare practitioner (and their team) will immediately get to work on stabilizing the patient through several means, such as with intravenous liquids, gastric lavage (or cleansing), the administration of activated charcoal, and chelation therapy .
- Chronic arsenic exposure – A modified route of treatment is used for patients exposed to arsenic over a more chronic period. This treatment might include the use of vitamin A (to curb the chance of skin cancer), chelation and nutritional therapy, such as the use of selenium . Additionally, and crucially, treatment involves identifying and removing the source of arsenic in one’s environment.
How is arsenic poisoning tested for?
Arsenic poisoning is generally tested through one of two primary methods:
- Urine collection – According to research published by the National Library for Biotechnology Information, the “best” method for assessing arsenic presence is through a 24-hour urine test or, in the case of emergencies, a “spot” urine test . Arsenic exposure is verified at 50mcg/L or 100mcg of total arsenic, while acute arsenic poisoning is usually diagnosed from results well over several thousand micrograms.
- Blood test – Cleveland Clinic confirms that heavy metal blood tests are also performed to examine for arsenic, as well as for other heavy metals like mercury and lead .
Additional tests for arsenic poisoning may include imaging tests (such as X-rays), a complete blood count, kidney and liver function tests, hair and fingernail tests, among others [6, 13]. Again, this may depend on the severity of your symptoms and whether your healthcare practitioner believes you have acute or chronic arsenic toxicity.
Effects of heavy metals in the body: key points to know
Heavy metal poisoning symptoms: key points to know
What are trace minerals?
- Sun G, Xu Y, Zheng Q, Xi S. Arsenicosis history and research progress in Mainland China. The Kaohsiung Journal of Medical Sciences. 2011;27(9):377-381. doi:10.1016/j.kjms.2011.05.004
- World Health Organization. Arsenic. Who.int. Accessed January 22, 2023. Published February 15, 2018. URL
- Water Quality in the Great Salt Lake Basins. USGS. Accessed January 22, 2023.URL
- Arsenic Exposure | Arsenic and You. sites.dartmouth.edu. Accessed January 22, 2023. URL
- Kuivenhoven M, Mason K. Arsenic (Arsine) Toxicity. PubMed. Accessed January 22, 2023. Published 2020. URL
- The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. Arsenic poisoning. In: Encyclopædia Britannica. ; 2017. URL
- Arsenic Toxicity: What are the Physiologic Effects of Arsenic Exposure? Environmental Medicine | ATSDR. Accessed January 22, 2023. Published February 9, 2021. URL
- World Health Organization. Cardiovascular Diseases (CVDs). who.int. Accessed January 22, 2023. Published June 11, 2021. URL
- Toxic hepatitis - Symptoms and causes. Mayo Clinic. Accessed January 22, 2023. Published 2019. URL
- CDC. What is Diabetes? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed January 22, 2023. Published July 7, 2022. URL
- Encephalopathy. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. URL
- Arsenic Toxicity: How Should Patients Overexposed to Arsenic Be Treated and Managed? | Environmental Medicine | ATSDR. www.atsdr.cdc.gov. Accessed January 22, 2023. Published February 9, 2021. URL
- Heavy Metal Poisoning (Heavy Metal Toxicity): Symptoms, Causes & Treatment. Cleveland Clinic. Accessed January 22, 2023. URL