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Arsenic… the Silent Killer

Arsenic… the Silent Killer

By Sanjoy Sahana (T.Stanes & Co.Ltd)

When Napoleon died in 1821, his doctors recorded the official cause of death as stomach cancer. Although trace amounts of arsenic were found in Napoleon’s hair, the amount could have been absorbed naturally and not intentionally administered. Napoleon could have absorbed arsenic through eating a seafood meal, as it appears naturally in sea water and in sea dwellers. Towards the end of Napoleon’s life, he spent increasing amounts of time indoors, where his home was decorated with Paris Green wallpaper which contained arsenic compound. Arsenic was used during the Renaissance in Italy in makeup. SignoraToffana invented Aqua Toffana, which was face powder containing arsenic. Her clients were actually told to only wear the powder when the husbands were around. It needs to be pointed out that Signora Toffana was put to death after the death of about 600 of these husbands not to mention what wearing arsenic did to the women. Not so nice cosmetic history here!

Arsenic has been used as a murder weapon for centuries. Because the symptoms are similar to those of cholera, which was common at that time, arsenic poisoning often went undetected. By the 19th century, it had acquired the nickname “inheritance powder,” perhaps because impatient heirs were known or suspected to use it to ensure or accelerate their inheritances. Every cell in the body is affected by exposure to arsenic and so every system in the body — cardiovascular, neurological, gastrointestinal etc. — is damaged. “Arsenic poisoning works like pulling a circuit breaker in your house,” says the pathologist, Frank Hancock, “with the tissues shutting down as cells run out of energy. Eventually, the body’s systems shut down completely.” Research has shown that the inorganic arsenites (trivalent forms) in drinking water have a much higher acute toxicity than organic arsenates (pentavalent forms). The acute minimal lethal dose of arsenic in adults is estimated to be 70 to 200 mg or 1 mg/kg/day. Most reported arsenic poisonings are caused by one of arsenic’s compounds, also found in drinking water, arsenic trioxide which is 500 times more toxic than pure arsenic.

Symptoms of arsenic poisoning begin with headaches, confusion and drowsiness. As the poisoning develops, convulsions and changes in fingernail pigmentation may occur. When the poisoning becomes acute, symptoms may include diarrheas, vomiting, blood in the urine, cramping muscles, hair loss, stomach pain, and more convulsions. The organs of the body that are usually affected by arsenic poisoning are the lungs, skin, kidneys, and liver. The final result of arsenic poisoning is coma to death. Long term exposure to arsenic is related to vitamin A deficiency which is related to heart disease and night blindness. A preliminary study shows a relationship between arsenic exposure measured in urine and Type II diabetes. The results supported the hypothesis that low levels of exposure to inorganic arsenic in drinking water may play a role in diabetes prevalence.

Chronic arsenic poisoning results from drinking contaminated well water over a long period of time. This is due to arsenic contamination of aquifer water. The World Health Organization recommends a limit of 0.01 mg/L (10ppb) of arsenic in drinking water. More recent findings show that consumption of water with levels as low as 0.00017 mg/L (0.17ppb) over long periods of time can lead to arsenicosis. From a 1988 study in China, the US protection agency quantified the lifetime exposure of arsenic in drinking water at concentrations of 0.0017 mg/L, 0.00017 mg/L, and 0.000017 mg/L are associated with a lifetime skin cancer risk of 1 in 10,000, 1 in 100,000, and 1 in 1,000,000respectively. The World Health Organization contends that a level of 0.01 mg/L poses a risk of 6in 10000 chance of lifetime skin cancer risk and contends that this level of risk is acceptable.

There are two main ways arsenic can get into your drinking water. Mineral deposits in some areas of Illinois naturally contain high levels of arsenic. Groundwater flowing through these deposits can dissolve arsenic from the minerals. This can increase the amount of arsenic in your well water.

Another way arsenic can get into your water is by contact with hazardous waste. Waste material containing arsenic is produced by industries that make or use arsenic. Arsenic has been used as a wood preservative, in pesticides, and in special kinds of glass. Improper disposal of this waste can contaminate ground water. In the Ganges Delta, the affected wells are typically more than 20 m and less than 100 m deep. Ground water closer to the surface typically has spent a shorter time in the ground, therefore likely absorbing a lower concentration of arsenic; water deeper than 100 m is exposed with much older sediments which have already been depleted of arsenic.

We can minimize the problem by using surface water and instituting effective withdrawal regulation.

West Bengal is flooded with surface water. We should first regulate proper watershed management. Treat and use available surface water, rain-water, and others. Let’s do things differently.

In addition to drinking contaminated water, we are at risk for arsenicosis because we depend on wetland rice, which is irrigated with As-contaminated ground water. Arsenic is taken up into rice plants through the roots, where it is transported to the edible grains. Roots of paddy are found to have the highest accumulation of arsenic then straw. Contaminated straw is taken by the cow to feed babies contaminated milk only! Let’s secure drinking water and food for everybody. Food… food…. Pure food… not poisonous one!