Arsenic is a poison. An ingredient in rat poison and other pesticides, arsenic can cause extreme health problems after either short or long term exposure. Clearly no one wants to ingest arsenic, but how realistic is this fear? How prevalent is arsenic contamination in our tap water, and how dangerous is arsenic exposure at low levels? This article will cover how arsenic may contaminate our tap water and health problems that can occur from drinking contaminated water.
How arsenic affects drinking water
Arsenic is a naturally occurring element present in rocks and the Earth’s crust. Arsenic can leach from rocks and minerals into surface or ground water. Arsenic can also enter the environment as industrial waste from applications like mining or coal burning. Historically, arsenic was also present in many pesticides and has remained in the soil years after the initial pesticide use. This contaminated surface and ground water can enter public reservoirs and water supplies, however, well water is in the greatest danger of arsenic contamination. Arsenic concentration in groundwater varies throughout the country, with pockets in the West, Northeast, Midwest, and Texas experiencing high levels of groundwater contamination. Globally, Bangladesh has experienced some of the worst levels of arsenic contamination and has served as a tragic example of the dangers of arsenic in drinking water.
Health effects of arsenic in drinking water
Arsenic has two forms, organic and inorganic. Organic arsenic is usually found in foods like shellfish and is less of a health risk than inorganic arsenic. Inorganic arsenic is the form most commonly found in drinking water and can cause severe health effects like cancer or compromised immune systems. Because of arsenic’s adverse health effects, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the amount of arsenic in drinking water. In 2006, the EPA reduced the amount of arsenic allowed in drinking water from 50 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion. Unfortunately, even small doses of arsenic can be dangerous. A study at UNC Chapel Hill found a small risk of bladder cancer linked to arsenic exposure at even 10 parts per billion over a lifetime. A Columbia University study found that arsenic levels even below the legal EPA limit might have an effect on IQ. The researchers discovered that children exposed to low levels of arsenic in drinking water had an average IQ six points lower than children that were not exposed to arsenic in their drinking water. At arsenic levels higher than the EPA’s legal limit, health consequences can be even more dire. In Bangladesh, where the arsenic contamination is higher than in the United States, researchers have noticed an increase in lung problems, infant morbidity, and a higher mortality rate correlated with arsenic exposure. Additionally, arsenic exposure is cumulative, and drinking water is not the only source of potential arsenic exposure. Some foods like apple juice, pear juice, or rice, can have low levels of arsenic. If you consume large amounts of these foods, it is especially important to be cognizant of how much arsenic may be present in your drinking water.
Arsenic contamination of drinking water can be a significant issue at even low levels. If you use a well for your drinking water, or live in an area of the country with a higher frequency of arsenic contamination, you should research the safety of your water. If you use a public source of water, you can request the Consumer Confidence Report to find out how much arsenic may be present in your water. If you have a private well, you can have it tested for arsenic content. If your arsenic concentration is higher than the EPA’s recommended level, you should consider purification of your drinking water.