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Indiana State Department of Health

Arsenic Arsenic

Arsenic has been found in at least 781 of 1,300 National Priorities List sites (hazardous waste sites) identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A release from an industrial plant, or from a container, does not always lead to exposure. You can be exposed to a chemical only when you come into contact with it. Exposures occur through breathing, eating, or drinking substances containing the chemical, or from skin contact with it. If you are exposed to arsenic, the appearance of symptoms and their seriousness is dependant upon how much, how long and by what way you were exposed. Your sex, age, lifestyle and state of health also contribute.

What is arsenic?

Arsenic is a naturally occurring gray metal-like material found in the environment combined with other elements. Most of these combined compounds are white or colorless powders that do not evaporate. They have no smell, and most have no special taste, so you cannot tell if arsenic is present in your food, water, or air. Arsenic is sometimes used in industry as a wood preservative and in insect and weed killers.

How does arsenic enter the environment?

It is present in the air as dust from industrial output, burning of arsenic containing compounds, and the wind blowing arsenic containing soil. It dissolves in water, so it may be present in groundwater, lakes, rivers and streams.

How might I be exposed to arsenic?

If you live in an area with naturally high levels of arsenic or near a hazardous waste site, you may take arsenic in through your water or from food grown in the soil. If you work in copper or lead smelting and inhale arsenic dust or swallow it, if you work with arsenic treated wood, either burning it or through the sawdust, and inhale the dust or smoke, if you work with or frequent a building where arsenic containing pest killers are used, you could accidentally inhale or swallow it.

How can arsenic affect my health?

Because arsenic is a natural part of the environment, low levels of arsenic are present in soil, water, food, and air. Higher levels of some arsenic may cause irritation of the stomach and intestines, pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Arsenic is harmful to the production of blood cells and may cause abnormal heart rhythm. It may damage blood vessels and impair nerve function. It may also cause skin changes in the form of corns or warts. These skin changes are not considered to be a health concern in their own right, but a small number of the corns may ultimately develop into skin cancer. In high levels, arsenic may cause lung cancer or even death. The Department of Health and Human Services has determined that arsenic is a known carcinogen. All of these symptoms may also be caused by other illnesses, so it is important to determine if you have been exposed.

Is there a medical test to determine whether I have been exposed to arsenic?

There are tests that can measure arsenic in your blood, urine, hair or fingernails. None of these tests are routinely available at your doctor's office.

For more information contact:

Indiana State Department of Health
Environmental Epidemiology Section
2 N. Meridian Street, Section 3-D
Indianapolis, IN 46204
317/351-7190 Ext 262

This fact sheet was supported in whole by funds from the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act trust fund through a cooperative agreement with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Public Health Service, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.