Arsenic is a naturally occurring element widely distributed in the earth’s crust. In the environment, arsenic is combined with oxygen, chlorine, and sulfur to form inorganic arsenic compounds. Arsenic in animals and plants combines with carbon and hydrogen to form organic arsenic compounds.
Inorganic arsenic compounds are mainly used to preserve wood. Copper chromated arsenic (CCA) is used to make “pressure-treated” lumber. CCA is no longer used in the U.S. for residential uses; it is still used in industrial applications. Organic arsenic compounds are used as pesticides, primarily on cotton plants.
In the Environment
- Arsenic occurs naturally in soil and minerals and it therefore may enter the air, water, and land from wind-blown dust and may get into water from runoff and leaching.
- Arsenic cannot be destroyed in the environment. It can only change its form.
- Rain and snow remove arsenic dust particles from the air.
- Many common arsenic compounds can dissolve in water. Most of the arsenic in water will ultimately end up in soil or sediment.
- Fish and shellfish can accumulate arsenic; most of this arsenic is in an organic form called arsenobetaine that is much less harmful.
- Ingesting small amounts present in your food and water or breathing air containing arsenic.
- Breathing sawdust or burning smoke from wood treated with arsenic.
- Living in areas with unusually high natural levels of arsenic in rock.
- Working in a job that involves arsenic production or use, such as copper or lead smelting, wood treating, or pesticide application.
- Breathing high levels of inorganic arsenic can give you a sore throat or irritated lungs.
- Ingesting very high levels of arsenic can result in death.
- Exposure to lower levels can cause nausea and vomiting, decreased production of red and white blood cells, abnormal heart rhythm, damage to blood vessels, and a sensation of “pins and needles” in hands and feet.
- Ingesting or breathing low levels of inorganic arsenic for a long time can cause a darkening of the skin and the appearance of small “corns” or “warts” on the palms, soles, and torso.
- Skin contact with inorganic arsenic may cause redness and swelling.
- Organic arsenic compounds are less toxic than inorganic arsenic compounds. Exposure to high levels of some organic arsenic compounds may cause similar effects as inorganic arsenic.