This is an in-depth look at how we can be exposed to Arsenic. Most importantly, we look at ways to minimise this. This report is especially useful for those who have found levels in their body through pathology testing or the Toxtest/EAL Hair Analysis of toxic metals. This article will be updated as more information becomes available and complements all other Arsenic related information and tests on Toxno and Toxtest. This Toxno report complements our detailing of Arsenic Health Effects linked to below.
Food Sources of Arsenic
These tables show data from the site The Clean label project
They test Pet food, Protein powders and Baby-food/Formula and much more. They are based in the US so most of the products they test come from there and it’s difficult to verify the quality of the laboratory they use as they don’t reveal this.
However the results are very illuminating to say the least. Arsenic is measured in micrograms per kilograms (µg/kg) also known as parts-per-billion or ppb.
It appears that some baby foods had more Arsenic than pet foods and that those food samples that were high in one heavy metal also tended to be high in the other heavy metals. Therefore choose you brand carefully if you are going to eat these type of foods.
Mining as sources of Arsenic exposure
Mining is an endeavour that has been going on for millennia on this planet and its reach and activities are not abating soon. Unfortunately, mining leaves a legacy of toxic chemicals in the environment that years later still negatively impacts the local environment and more importantly the people that live there. Often people move into an area and have no idea of the historical activities and legacy exposures and what went on there. A simple analysis of water and/or soil can reveal any residual contaminations.
Equally disturbing is the historical and to some extent prevailing trend; when mining companies have finished in an area or with the mine, they just leave and are held only minimally accountable to clean up after them. Usually, governments pay for any remediation and even this doesn’t always happen.
And it gets worse. The derelict mine map above shows some extent of our penchant for digging up gold and the like from the ground in Austalia over the last several hundred years. Today other “precious metals” are in demand and new mine licences and explorations are seeking approval frequently. Companies with fully or in-part foreign ownership are seeking approval to explore and dig up local farming or native areas in Australia with the assurance that it will provide a boost to the local economy. The relevant part of the word “economy” here is “con”.
Insufficient assurance is still lacking or in place to guarantee a thorough clean up after they have finished and little is really known as to the consequences of the extremely dangerous practice of compromising surface and underground drinking water in these areas of Australia.
So what we get left with is heavy metals and other toxic substances mulling around in the aftermath of this pillaging, short-sighted, money-driven, irresponsible behaviour.
Next some examples from history and the current situation…
“The Hillgrove mineral field ( near Armidale, NSW) in the upper part of the Macleay River catchment, northern New South Wales (NSW) has been a major producer of antimony (Sb) and gold (Au).
Historic mine waste disposal practices have resulted in Antimony and Arsenic contaminated sediment dispersion extending to the coastal floodplain at Kempsey 300 km to the east where population density is higher and land use more intense.”
Metalloids (like arsenic and antimony are similar to metals but with slightly different properties) are “grossly elevated in the upper catchment with contamination evident in soils, sediments, water and in biota. Antimony and Arsenic concentrations, however, also exceed background concentrations over 90 % of the floodplain area with greater than 20 % of the area showing concentrations elevated above Australian ecological investigation values. This is the largest known man-made dispersion of Antimony in Australia.” We could say antimony is the sister metalloid of Arsenic and nearly as dangerous and toxic. See Arsenic and Antimony profiles (and in sidebar here) in this Toxtest article.
“The toxicity, behaviour and bioavailability of both metalloids in the environment strongly depend on speciation and environmental conditions, with soil pH and redox being important in determining parameters.
Both metalloids can be strongly retained in soils but the extent of this retention is influenced by soil pH and redox, which then determines the mobile and bioavailable fraction and the extent of any uptake in plants and systemic adsorption in organisms and humans.
Studies have revealed that historic mining practices in the upper Macleay catchment have caused significant arsenic and antimony contamination of soil and in-stream sediments, from Hillgrove to the Pacific Ocean – a distance of more than 300 kilometres. These studies from 2001 and 2007 were quoted in a report to Kempsey Shire Council in 2009, titled the Macleay River Estuary Processes Study. The report stated both arsenic and antimony were toxic and carcinogenic.”
Wilson, S., Tighe, M., Paterson, E., & Ashley, P. (2014). Food crop accumulation and bioavailability assessment for antimony ( Sb) compared with arsenic (As) in contaminated soils. Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 21(20), 11671-11681. doi:10.1007/s11356-014-2577-5
And, here are some of the stars in the field of Pollution Science from the University of New England (UNE) in Armidale.
Legacy mines and remnants of their heavy metal entrails are all over Australia. The Sundown Tin and Copper Mine is a heritage-listed mine at Little Sundown Creek, Stanthorpe, Southern Downs Region, Queensland, Australia was built and used from 1897 to 1920s and featured some Arsenic extraction. At the time Arsenic was used with the prickly pear eradication program. In 2004 an ABC report said that the Sundown mining area near Stanthorpe was to be checked for toxic material, including arsenic, as part of a program rehabilitating old mines.The survey is being undertaken by the Department of Natural Resources and the University of Queensland. The department’s Sally McFadyen says if the surveys reveal large quantities of arsenic, it will remove it.
“In addition to mercury, historical gold mining activities have released arsenic from gold-bearing ores. Among the historical goldfields of Victoria, tailings dumps and overburden (unprocessed waste rock) containing high levels of arsenic have been linked to the contamination of surrounding soils and waterways. As with mercury, the effects of arsenic on aquatic life, and the potential health risks posed by contaminated fish, are dependent on arsenic’s form and concentration.”
Drinking Water as a Source of Arsenic exposure
“Arsenic is bioaccumulative and symptoms may take 10-15 years to develop after expsoure at high levels. Drinking water can be contaminated with inorganic arsenic through wind blown dust, leaching or runoff from soil, rocks and sediment. Groundwater sources such as bores will usually have higher arsenic levels than surface water. In major Australian reticulated water supplies concentrations of arsenic range up to 0.015mg/L, with typical values less than 0.005mg/L. ” Note that the Australian Drinking Water Guideline for Arsenic is = 0.01mg/L also expressed as 10 µg/Litre
It is important to get your bore water and tank water tested at least every 5 years. And if you are going to go to the trouble of sending in water for testing, then get other potentially toxic metals tested concurrently and for little extra cost. Extensive and detailed water testing and visualisation service in Australia available from Toxtest and EAL (Environmental Analysis Laboratory)
India, Nepal and Bangledesh have serious problems with Arsenic in Drinking water. “The results of the analyses on 25,058 samples tested in 20 districts, published in the status report of arsenic in Nepal (2003), demonstrated that the 23% of the samples were containing 10–50 µg/L of As, and the 8% of the samples were containing more than 50 µg/L of As.” REF: Arsenic Contamination of Groundwater in Nepal—An Overview
High concentrations of arsenic in drinking water have been reported in several countries, including Argentina, Chile, Bangladesh, China, Japan, India, Mongolia, Nepal, USA. The world’s largest arsenic related health issues are the contamination of drinking water aquifers in Bangladesh and West Bengal, India, potentially affecting millions of people with new cases continuing to be discovered.
Many developing countries still use the 50 µg/L of arsenic as their national cut-off standard – recall that Australia uses only 10 µg/L. Importantly, high arsenic levels in groundwater are not necessarily related to high arsenic concentration in the soil and rocks because of the complex interplay of mobility, speciation and environmental conditions.
From Western Australia
The Department of Environment Regulation, Western Australia published a fact sheet that contains information about contaminated groundwater and possible contamination and testing
Bores in areas where buildings/ paths are heavily iron (red-brown) stained should be tested for arsenic. REF: See Arsenic recomendations for bore-water – Government of Western Australia
Agriculture as a source of Arsenic exposure
Contaminated agricultural land – Report from the NSW EPA
“While a number of organophosphates have been identified as causing acute but relatively short-lived toxic residue problems, much more extensive problems have been encountered in New South Wales with OCPs and arsenical pesticides.
In New South Wales arsenical compounds have been used at different times as weedicides, termiticides, and general pesticides. In banana plantations, for example, weeds were commonly controlled by first treating with lead arsenate and then with arsenic pentoxide. Arsenic was mostly replaced by the OCPs in the 1950s and 1960s, but is still in limited use today.
The two major known contaminants in former bananalands are arsenic and dieldrin. Both were extensively applied by hand until the 1970s. Dieldrin is slowly biodegradable, but arsenic does not decompose. Both contaminants are expected to bond strongly to soil particles; this is likely to restrict most contamination to the upper surface soil levels. Contaminants are more likely to be redistributed by transport of soil rather than by chemical leaching.
Hot spots are expected around chemical mixing and pumping sites, and possibly also around the old banana sheds where pesticides were stored.
Then add Lead into the mix – research into historical banana pesticide practices showed that arsenic was commonly applied as an oxide, but was sometimes applied as lead arsenate.”
REF: NSW EPA
Lifestyle Choices & Arsenic exposure
E-Cigarets as a Source of Arsenic exposure
“Our findings indicate that e-cigarettes are a potential source of exposure to toxic metals (Chromium, Nickel, and Lead), and to metals that are toxic when inhaled (Manganese and Zinc). Markedly higher concentrations in the aerosol and tank samples versus the dispenser demonstrate that coil contact induced e-liquid contamination. Arsenic was detected in 10.7% of dispenser samples (median 26.7 μg/kg) and these concentrations were similar in aerosol and tank samples.” REF Metal Concentrations in e-Cigarette Liquid and Aerosol Samples: The Contribution of Metallic Coils
Natural background levels in Soil as a Source of Arsenic exposure
Background levels of minerals, heavy metals and metalloids can vary substantially across regions within a country, especially Austalia. Arsenic often occurs naturally in greater abundance where ever gold and/or antimony is found geologically.
Australia’s geochemical environment affects our well-being. It directly affects public health, agriculture and mining activities. REF: Geoscience Australia
Knowledge of higher than normal background levels of a toxic heavy metal like Arsenic becomes important when humans live in the area and grow food or are exposed to dust or drink water that has increased arsenic levels due to higher than normal background geological levels.
If you intend to eat more than 5-10% of your food from your own garden soil/compost, then definitely get the soil/compost tested, especially if you live or are about to purchase a house or land in a geological area that is known to be higher in a particular heavy metal.
The New England, Armidale area in NSW, Australia is a good example with known higher background concentrations of arsenic in the soil, particularly to the north of Armidale.
Extensive and detailed Soil, Compost and Dust testing and visualisation service in Australia available from Toxtest and EAL (Environmental Analysis Laboratory)
Geochemical Atlas of Australia – Arsenic
The National Geochemical Survey of Australia (NGSA) aims to collect samples from 1529 sites located in 1390 catchments covering over 90% of Australia.
“The main factors that affect the absorption (the process by which one thing absorbs or is absorbed by another) and adsorption (hold as a thin film on the outside surface or on internal surfaces within the material) of different forms of arsenic in soil are the type and amounts of sorbing components in the soil (i.e. iron, aluminium, magnesium), the pH (transfer of hydrogen ions between chemical species determines the pH), the redox potential (a measure of the tendency of a chemical species to acquire electrons and thereby be reduced), the cation exchange capacity and the clay particle size . It has been shown that soluble arsenic in soil increases with a decrease in pH and redox potential and that the water-soluble fraction of arsenic is highest in soils that have the lowest clay content.”
See An Investigation of Inorganic Background Soil Constituents with a Focus on Arsenic Species for more details about Arsenic and its behaviour in water and soil.
“Generally, the mean Arsenic concentrations in igneous rocks range from 1.5 to 3.0 mg/kg Arsenic, whereas the mean As concentrations in sedimentary rocks range from 1.7 to 400 mg/kg Arsenic.
Atmospheric deposition of Arsenic onto the ground contributes significantly to the geochemical cycle of Arsenic with an estimated global atmospheric flux value of 73,540 tonnes per year. About 60% of the atmospheric Arsenic flux has been estimated to be due to low-temperature volatilization, with volcanic activity the next most important natural source. However, on a localized scale, volcanic activity may be the dominant source of atmospheric deposition. The other 40%, however, is due to industrial and other activities of man.”
REF: Arsenic in the Soil Environment – background sources
Arsenic in the News
The Sydney Morning Herald contributed this excellent investigative piece on contamination and cover-ups that included Arsenic (+Lead) entitled – What lies beneath, by Mario Christodoulou and Patrick Begley see Toxic State for full article.
Some expamples –
A firm that makes most of Australia’s power poles poisoned land near Newcastle with arsenic while reporting repeated licence breaches over a decade. Thousands of contaminated sites have poisoned the land right under the nose of authorities.
Or – In 2014 NSW Auditor-General Grant Hehir found long delays in the assessment with no clear principles underpinning the prioritisation of some sites. He singled out an arsenic poison factory in the small town of Jennings that hugs the Queensland border. Surface water on the site contained arsenic and copper concentrations 1000 times the guideline limits when it was sampled in 2014
A perfect storm of Uranium, Nitrates and Arsenic
Dr Christine Jeffries-Stokes and her Co-Chief Investigator, Annette Stokes showing a child the kidney health story. (IMAGE: Poppy Van Old Granger) from newMatilda.com story
“Water flows from the Pilbara all the way south to the Great Australian Bight. The critical threat is the nitrates, combined with uranium and arsenic, to create a perfect stor. Nitrates (from agriculture make uranium, arsenic (either natural or from mining activities) and other heavy metals more soluble. Uranium in the presence of nitrates creates the substance, uranyl nitrite, which is extremely toxic to kidneys. When children were tested in the area and had positive levels of arsenic, the symptomatic result was numbing of their bare feet.”
Reported in newMatilda.com
An illuminating article from the Daily Mirror in India, presented a detailed story by Dr Kamal Mammamplia that shown the light on the epidemic rise of Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown origin (CKDU). The article rationally presented with evidence that the most likely causal factor was a confluence of factors that included concurrent exposure to cadmium, lead and arsenic along with herbicide exposure (glyphosate).
This highlighted what is now becoming more concerning and that is the synergistic harmful effects of multiple chemicals at once, even if all the individual chemicals are at low levels and as such would present little cause for concern on their own. Interesting read…
Past and Present Industry activity as a source of Arsenic exposure
Historic Quincy Copper Smelter lays abandoned and empty. Buildings are rusting and windows broken. Smelter sits on the shore of the Portage Lake near Hancock, Michigan.
Arsenic residues in the communities surrounding former copper smelters remain a public health concern, especially for infants and children. To evaluate environmental exposure among these children, a population-based cross-sectional study was conducted in the vicinity of a former copper smelter in the US.
Average arsenic levels of different types of soil ranged from 121 to 236 μg/g, and were significantly related to proximity and wind direction to the smelter site. The same significant relationship was observed for interior dust arsenic. Arsenic measured in the children was found to be significantly related to soil arsenic in bare areas in residential yards. In general, elevated excretion of arsenic was demonstrable and warranted parents’ attention to reduce exposure of their children to environmental arsenic.
REF: Environmental Arsenic Exposure of Children around a Former Copper Smelter Site
Copper chrome arsenate (CCA) treated timber
A personal experince (2017): Trying to buy a piece of timber from Bunnings recently for the garden that did not contain CCA, turned out to be more difficult than I thought.
“Copper chrome arsenate (CCA) treated timber is wood that has been treated with a preservative containing copper, chromium and arsenic. CCA treatment prolongs the life of the wood. This is why, in the past, CCA treated timber was commonly used in decking, playground equipment, fences, retaining walls, jetties and vineyards. Concerns have been raised regarding the potential health risks of CCA-treated timber.
The CCA process was pioneered in 1933 and is used worldwide. Copper and arsenic in the preservative protect the wood from insect and fungal attack. Chromium (chrome) ‘locks’ the copper and arsenic into the timber and reduces the risk of the chemicals leaching out. The CCA process gives the treated wood a green tint.
The main concern with CCA-treated timber is that it contains arsenic, which can be ingested (swallowed) or inhaled (when CCA-treated timber is burnt). Over time, small amounts of chemicals may leach from CCA-treated timber, but research has found that the amount of leached arsenic is less than that found in common foods.”
Do not burn CCA-treated timber in fireplaces, barbecues, wood stoves or any wood fire. In the event of a bushfire, the ash from burnt CCA-treated timber can contain up to 10 per cent (by weight) arsenic, chromium and copper. Swallowing only a few grams of this ash can be harmful.
You should limit possible exposure to the chemicals in CCA-treated timber as a precaution in your home workshop.
See Better-health Victoria for more on their recommendations : Copper chrome arsenic (CCA) treated timber
From CCA Treated Wood
And importantly – Alternative timber treatments exist – Arsenic-free alternative timber treatment products are available and registered for use in Australia. These products control a similar range of pests to CCA treatments. Do an online search to find them. See Better-health Victoria
Off course Copper chrome arsenate (CCA) treated timber also contains chromium which can also be a toxic problem See our How we get exposed to the heavy metal, CHROMIUM (Cr) for that story.