Arsenic in Drinking Water Tied to Illnesses at Low Levels

arsenic_drinking_water_levelsNaturally occurring arsenic in drinking water may be to blame for a number of common maladies and some serious ailments, in addition to respiratory problems seen in chronic low-dose exposure, according to research.

Arsenic that is naturally occurring is found in soil and rock and can make its way into groundwater. Contamination has long been considered minor, according to The New York Times’ Well column. Now, research suggests that arsenic, which is deadly at high doses, may do significant damage at low doses, Well reports. In fact, chronic low-dose arsenic exposure is believed to be the culprit in pediatric and adult respiratory issues; cardiovascular disease; diabetes; and cancers of the skin, bladder, and lung. Even trace amounts can interfere with tumor-suppressing glucocorticoid hormones, according to research. In addition to its ties to a number of malignancies, arsenic is also known to interfere with immune cell functioning, damage lung cells, and inflame heart cells, according to Well.

Geological surveys in Bangladesh revealed serious aquifer contamination from bedrock arsenic, according to Well; arsenic levels in water there easily reach 1 part per million (ppm). Researchers discovered that health risks existed at consistently lower levels of exposure in Bangladesh and, this July, researchers at the University of Chicago discovered that Bangladesh residents who are chronically exposed to arsenic at just 19 ppb, revealed signs of reduced lung function; at 120 ppb or higher, patients breathed in ways that were similar to people who are long-term smokers, according to Well.

“Bangladesh is unfortunately a living laboratory for the health effects of arsenic,” said Habibul Ahsan, the study’s lead author, director of the Center for Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention at the University of Chicago, and a native of Bangladesh. The long-term study of arsenic and health in Bangladesh that Dr. Ahsan organized now has 30,000 participants, according to Well. Some 24 percent of deaths in that country from chronic disease could be blamed on arsenic-tainted water. “We need to take arsenic exposure very seriously,” Dr. Ahsan said.

U.S. studies are seeing similar issues, including increased mortality rates. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has limited arsenic in apple juice to 10 ppb, and is reviewing arsenic in rice. The National Academy of Sciences has also embarked on a broad review of arsenic risks following an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) request. Researchers are also looking at drinking water nationwide, for instance, in Nevada where wells contain arsenic at levels exceeding 500 ppb; in New England where arsenic is tainting aquifers, and in California where arsenic contamination has been discovered, Well reported.

In the U.S., municipal water suppliers must meet the EPA’s standard of 10 ppb for arsenic in drinking water; however, there is no regulation for private wells; about 13 million people receive their drinking water from private wells with arsenic levels exceeding the federal standard.

In related news, a new study found that high levels of arsenic and other heavy metals are present in groundwater located near hydraulic fracturing (fracking) sites in the Barnett Shale located in Texas.

University of Texas at Arlington researchers conducted the research that adds to mounting evidence that arsenic and other heavy metal contamination near natural gas fracking sites may be associated with fracking activities. According to the Aspen Business Journal, a presentation that The Los Angeles Times obtained, discussed increased arsenic levels in groundwater near wells in Dimock, Pennsylvania. In 2009, the EPA found arsenic in the groundwater near Pavillion, Wyoming fracking sites; that study was later abandoned by the agency, according to the Aspen Business Journal.

Similar studies have been conducted in the Marcellus Shale located beneath a number of states, including Pennsylvania and New York. Tests revealed “elevated constituents” such as heavy metals, specifically arsenic, selenium, and strontium that all tested at levels exceeding the EPA’s maximum contaminate limit for drinking water, as well as at levels exceeding what would be considered naturally occurring, according to ProPublica. Arsenic levels in fracking areas were seen at about 18 times higher than in non-fracking areas and the metal levels seen were at concentrations not considered normal.

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