Arsenic in a Child's World

Ann Pike-Paris, MS, RN


Pediatr Nurs. 2004;30(3) 

In This Article

What it is

Arsenic, a naturally-occurring element and classified as a heavy metal, has been known as an effective poison for hundreds of years and appears steel gray and metal like. As an element, it cannot be destroyed, only change form (see Hot Box). While occurring in the Earth's crust in the form of veins, it also reaches us through man-made substances such as pesticides, hazardous waste sites, and smelters. Arsenic veins have contaminated water supplies and caused chronic health problems worldwide. Since 1985, the U.S. no longer produces arsenic; however, we consume the largest amount worldwide, primarily as a wood preservative. China now leads the world in production (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry [ATDSR], 2001). In compound form, arsenic is variable in color.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned most uses of arsenic as a pesticide in 1991, except for one, CCA. However, in February 2002, the EPA announced that CCA-treated wood would be withdrawn from the residential market place as of December 31, 2003. This effectively eliminated 85% of the most commonly used preserved wood (Treated wood..., 2002). Nevertheless, 90% of all arsenic produced is used as wood preservative (ATDSR, 2001).

We are exposed daily to arsenic in our water, air, and soil. The majority of exposure is due in some form to its commercial use. If incinerated and airborne, arsenic becomes deposited in the soil or water. Arsenic can travel in the wind and, depending upon the compound form, will adhere to soil or water. Disodium methylarsenta (DMSA) is one arsenic pesticide still in use on cotton plants (ATDSR, 2001) and becomes deposited in the soil. Toxicity of arsenic compounds varies widely based on biochemical actions of the compounds, absorbability, and efficiency of biotransformation and disposition (EPA, 1999). The EPA ranks arsenicals in the following manner:

  • arsines-most toxic

  • arsenites (inorganic trivalent compounds)-a close second

  • arsenates or inorganic pentavalent compounds-somewhat less toxic than arsenites

  • organic (methylated) pentavalent compounds-the least hazardous of arsenicals

While most forms have been used in pesticides in the U.S. at some time, the majority have now been banned. Some products are still in use overseas.

Average soil levels are 5 parts per million (ppm) and can range from 1-40 (ATDSR, 2001). Air levels of arsenic in remote areas are 1-3 ng/m3; urban areas are from 20-100 ng/m3. Drinking water averages are 2 ug/L, with some regions in the U.S. having much higher levels (i.e., parts of New England, Minnesota, eastern Michigan and southwestern states). In January 2001, the EPA issued new public drinking water standards for arsenic: 10 parts per billion (ppb). (Since 1947, the maximum contaminant level (MCL) for water had been 50 ppb.) Public water systems must comply with the new standard as of January 23, 2006. All of these levels reflect inorganic arsenic.

Our diet is the final source. We consume arsenic in shellfish, cod, and haddock, but in the organic, less toxic form, which does not pose a health risk (Committee on Environmental Health, 2003). As mentioned, since 1991, arsenic was banned from most pesticide uses. In spite of that, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) states an average daily consumption of inorganic arsenic from food for a 6-year-old is about 4.6 ug/day and from water is up to 4.5 ug/day (American Academy of Pediatrics [AAP], 2003).


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