I'm sure we've all heard about arsenic before, especially with living in Nova Scotia where ground water levels of arsenic can be quite elevated in many areas. But do you know about the health implications of long-term arsenic exposure and if you should even be worried about it?
Arsenic is a heavy metal that comes in about four different inorganic forms and one organic form. Each of these forms of arsenic have varying half-lives in the body, from four hours to four days. Most of our arsenic exposure comes from water and food that has been grown in arsenic-rich soil or watered with arsenic-rich water although we can also have exposure through seafood. Because of arsenic's short half life (relative to other heavy metals) it doesn't necessarily build up (or the fancy term would be biomagnify) in the body and hang out there like mercury, lead or cadmium do. However, depending on how much high-level arsenic groundwater you're consuming, it may be a problem for your health.
Inorganic arsenic, found in ground water is well absorbed in the gut and respiratory tract. From there, arsenic goes through a number of chemical changes that can make it more reactive or toxic to our cells and DNA. Low level arsenic exposure has been linked to symptoms such as:
- Skin lesions (ex. hyper- or hypopigmentation, precancerous lesions)
- Chronic disease of the bladder, lung and liver
- Cardiovascular disease and hypertension
- Type 2 diabetes and elevated fasting glucose levels
- Mitochondrial instability (ex. fatigue, muscle pain/soreness, brain fog)
- Poor scores in global cognition, processing speed and memory
- Chronic respiratory symptoms (ex. difficulty breathing, asthma, chronic cough, chest discomfort)
So what can you do?
For starters, get your drinking water tested. The WHO (as do the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality) limit for water arsenic is 10ug/L and the only way to know if your drinking water is in compliance with this standard is to test it. You can find various testing locations in Nova Scotia here.
It also isn't a bad idea to install a reverse osmosis (RO) water purifier. The charcoal filters that most of us have are great at removing certain chemicals from our water but they aren't the greatest at removing arsenic. It's worth investing in an RO machine.
In terms of dietary sources of arsenic, reconsider your cooking methods on some grains, particularly rice. One American study showed that total urinary arsenic concentration increased 14.5% with each 0.25 cup increase in cooked rice consumption! And with about half a cup per day of cooked rice equated to drinking 1L/day of 10ug/L arsenic water, that's dangerously approaching the contamination limit. The key to decreasing arsenic levels in your rice is to wash it with low arsenic water (from that amazing RO filter you just installed) before and halfway through cooking. This will help diminish total arsenic significantly and save your body from an unwanted heavy metal burden.
All it takes is two simples measures to decrease your arsenic exposure significantly. Simple, right?