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How Bad is Arsenic in Water?

If you are not aware of the possibility of arsenic in water supplies, it is time to consider the human health risks of anyone who drinks it.

49 of 50 states in the United States including have arsenic contamination in groundwater supplies according to the information from the U.S. government. Higher amounts in some states like Massachusetts, Minnesota and New Hampshire can be especially dangerous.

This means that you are likely to live in an area with higher levels of arsenic in the groundwater and private wells.

Let’s examine arsenic in the drinking water supplies, the danger of arsenic poisoning, and how water treatment will help reduce the risks.

arsenic in well water

What is Arsenic?

Arsenic (As) is a chemical element and metalloid that occurs naturally in rocks and various minerals.

Minerals with a combination of sulfur and metals often contain arsenic, including pure element crystals of Arsenic.

Inorganic arsenic is considered harmful to the health of living organisms.

There are two common inorganic forms of arsenic which are arsenite and arsenate. Arsenate is less toxic than arsenite.

What are the Uses of Arsenic?

While groundwater is one of the highest dietary sources of arsenic, the risk of exposure from food and products in your environment are also high.

Arsenic is widely used in various industrial processes that can eventually affect public health, including:

  • doping agent in semiconductors (gallium arsenide)
  • bronzing
  • pyrotechnics
  • hardening shot
  • alloying agent
  • glass processing
  • pigments
  • textiles
  • paper
  • metal adhesives
  • wood preservative
  • ammunition
  • hide tanning
  • pesticides in agriculture
  • food and feed additives
  • pharmaceuticals

With so many applications of arsenic in various industries, it is only natural that you are exposed to arsenic in many ways more than you can think of.

Arsenic in Food

arsenic in food

Food grown with high arsenic well water or washed and cooked in water from contaminated wells should also be avoided when possible.

Some of foods with the highest levels of arsenic include rice, vegetables, and fruits.

Infants and young children with a limited diet that may be high in rice, fruits, and vegetables are at a higher risk of early health problems from arsenic toxicity from their diets.

Seafood can be high in organic arsenic, which is considered to be non-toxic compared the inorganic type.

How Does Arsenic Get into Water?

Arsenic is a natural element in rocks and soil. Arsenic present in the Earth’s crust and bedrock is known as inorganic arsenic.

When the wind blows, tiny soil particles containing arsenic can be distributed throughout the land, air, and water.

Water runoff is a primary contributor of arsenic contamination in groundwater. When flowing water comes into contact with minerals that have high concentration of arsenic, it will get contaminated with arsenic through the process of leaching.

When the contaminated runoff water finally reaches groundwater, private wells, or other water sources, high arsenic exposure can affect public health via the water system.

Human activities like the manufacturing processes listed above increase the health risk of drinking water arsenic or information contaminated foods.

How to Test for Arsenic in Water

Unfortunately, arsenic does not change the taste or smell of your drinking water supply, so it is almost impossible to notice its presence with your five senses.

Therefore, you cannot be sure that there is exposure to arsenic in your drinking water without information from a proper water test.

Given the presence of arsenic in all the states in the United States except for one, you must assume that there could be exposure in your water source and test regularly as part of good well maintenance.

If you want to test for arsenic in well water, you have two options…

One is to bring a water sample to a licensed testing laboratory or hire a professional to come to your house.

Your other choice is to buy a testing kit and test the levels in your own private well.

Testing Laboratories

Testing laboratories can be found in every state. These laboratories can test various samples for many different contaminants. It is important to choose a reputable and licensed laboratory so you can trust the information in the results.

Here’s what you should expect if you choose to bring your water sample to a testing laboratory.

  • Highly accurate – Compared to DIY testing kits, you can expect high accuracy for most laboratory results. Some testing kits might not be as accurate.
  • Test other contaminants like microorganisms and minerals – Arsenic is just one of the contaminants that will be tested in the water. You can see the full list of contaminants present in your water especially chemicals that are deemed toxic and harmful to your body.
  • Expensive – The cost of using the services of testing laboratories is several times higher than what you will pay for testing kits.
  • Time Consuming – You can get the results a few days after you bring your water sample to the laboratory.

Test Kits

In recent years, people are starting to use testing kits on samples from their drinking water systems.

Here are the characteristics of testing kits.

  • Can be purchased easily – You can choose from several different products. They vary in price, performance, and even results.
  • Portable – Unlike laboratories, you can bring testing kits to your house or to where your water is located. This is ideal for people who are far away from the city and do not want the inconvenience of going to the laboratory several times just to get their water tested.
  • Cheap – The price for testing kits can be as low as $10-$30 or as high as more than $100. Cheaper testing kits are suitable for testing your home well water while more expensive testing kits may offer more detailed results or other tests.
  • Test strips do the work – When testing arsenic, the testing strip is placed on top of a sealed bottle cap to test the gas produced by the reaction of arsenic and a reagent.

Safe Level of Arsenic in Drinking Water

Do not panic if there is trace amounts of arsenic coming from your kitchen sink.

In fact, arsenic in drinking water is safe if it is below the maximum contaminant level based on the drinking water standards.

In general, arsenic in drinking water that is below 10 micrograms per liter (mg/L) meets the safe drinking water standard by the World Health Organization and CDC.

Arsenic exposure over time (even at low levels) can still have an effect on human health.

What are the Health Effects of Drinking Water with Arsenic?

arsenic toxicity

Your main concern is the health risks to your body if there is arsenic in your drinking water.

The effects of exposure to high arsenic levels through your drinking water can be felt immediately or after several years.

Acute Effects of Drinking Water with Arsenic

There are several immediate effects of exposure to arsenic according to information from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

The most common acute arsenic symptoms are the following:

  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal and stomach pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Numbness and tingling of your extremities
  • Muscle cramps
  • Chest pains
  • Death, if left untreated

Long-Term Effects of Drinking Water with Arsenic

Unlike acute effects which can be cured if treated promptly, you have to worry more about the long-term effects of drinking water with high arsenic levels.

The most common long-term health effect of exposure to high arsenic levels is cancer but here is a long list of known health effects released by the CDC:

  • Skin problems including pigmentation changes
  • Skin lesions
  • Hyperkeratosis (hard patches on hands and feet soles)
  • Skin cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Cancer in the bladder
  • Diabetes
  • Developmental abnormalities
  • Pulmonary disease
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Pregnancy abnormalities
  • Infant mortality
  • Blood vessel diseases leading to gangrene
  • Child health problems
  • Heart attacks
  • Kidney failure
  • Negative effects on intelligence, memory, and cognitive development

How Arsenic in Water Affects the Environment

When it comes to the environment, the effects of arsenic contaminated water can be noticeable in the plants and animals living in the area.

Here are several known effects of inorganic arsenic in plants and animals according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

  1. Growth inhibition
  2. Inhibition of photosynthesis
  3. Prevents reproduction
  4. Abnormal behavior
  5. Death

Information from local environmental authorities can help you to remove arsenic that can affect your plants and animals, usually with a treatment device for your well.

How to Deal with Arsenic in Drinking Water?

If you find your private well or surface water has high levels of arsenic compared to the drinking water standard, you can use the options below to help deal with the problem.

Switch to Arsenic-Free Water Source

If possible, you can seek out a new drinking water source that lower in arsenic. Water wells in different locations can have different levels of arsenic even if they are close together.

Dilute High Arsenic Water with Low Arsenic Water

You can improve the water quality in your well without using other treatments by diluting it with low arsenic water. Arsenic in drinking water is the most problematic but you don’t have to remove arsenic for all water uses.

Install Arsenic Removal or Treatment Systems

There are many water treatment system options a well owner can choose from to treat drinking water wells including:

  • Reverse osmosis – improves drinking water quality by removing many known chemicals, usually in one key location, like the kitchen sink.
  • Ion exchange/Anion exchange – treatment options that work well when you want to remove arsenic to your whole house from a well.
  • Distillation – a water treatment for small batches of water via steam collection.

Observe Proper Disposal of Arsenic

Prevent arsenic in private wells by following published information on proper arsenic disposal at any sites where the water quality can be affected.

Keep Arsenic Out of Your Drinking Water

arsenic in water

NSF International encourages everyone to stay vigilant against arsenic and other harmful substances in their drinking water. Do not leave it to chance and risk the health of your family by drinking water that is not tested for arsenic.

A private well (especially in some states like Minnesota and those in New England) can be a dangerous source of arsenic contamination.

Having high levels of arsenic in your body is a serious health concern which can lead to cancer and death over time.

Remember to test your water source (including all wells) regularly as it could be more contaminated later and after it is tested arsenic-free.

Contact a water expert or install a treatment device like a reverse osmosis water filtration system to lower the level of arsenic and other chemicals from your water supply.