Think you may have been exposed to arsenic? Want to know more about where it is found and what you should watch for?

We asked the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to give us answers to basic questions.

We know: All About Arsenic Exposure

What is arsenic?

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element widely distributed in the earth's crust. Inorganic arsenic compounds are mainly used to preserve wood. Organic arsenic compounds are used as pesticides, primarily on cotton plants.

How might I be exposed to arsenic?

  • Eating food, drinking water, or breathing air containing arsenic.
  • Breathing contaminated workplace air.
  • Breathing sawdust or burning smoke from wood treated with arsenic.
  • Living near uncontrolled hazardous waste sites containing arsenic.
  • Living in areas with unusually high natural levels of arsenic in rock.

How can arsenic affect my health?

Breathing high levels of inorganic arsenic can give you a sore throat or irritated lungs. Ingesting high levels of inorganic arsenic can result in death. Lower levels of arsenic 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.

How can families reduce their risk for exposure to arsenic?

If you use arsenic-treated wood in home projects, you should wear dust masks, gloves, and protective clothing to decrease exposure to sawdust.

If you live in an area with high levels of arsenic in water or soil, you should use cleaner sources of water and limit contact with soil.

Is there a medical test to show whether I've been exposed to arsenic?

There are tests to measure the level of arsenic in blood, urine, hair, or fingernails.

Has the federal government made recommendations to protect human health?

The Environmental Protection Agency has set limits on the amount of arsenic that industrial sources can release to the environment and has restricted or canceled many uses of arsenic in pesticides.

Where can I get more information?

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry can tell you where to find occupational and environmental health clinics. Their specialists can recognize, evaluate, and treat illnesses resulting from exposure to hazardous substances.

You can also contact your community or state health or environmental quality department if you have any more questions or concerns.

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