Arsenic Poisoning

What is Arsenic Poisoning?

Arsenic poisoning occurs when too much of the element arsenic is ingested, often via contaminated drinking water.

Since arsenic doesn’t have any color or flavor, it is hard to detect in groundwater and thus dangerous. It’s also in small amounts in many types of food, including wine, juice, syrup, some meats and dairy products and rice.

Arsenic is also used in some industrial chemicals.

What are the Symptoms of Arsenic Poisoning?

Mild exposure symptoms

Mild arsenic poisoning can result in headaches, confusion and drowsiness. More severe cases produce diarrhea. Over time, chronic exposure to arsenic changes the color of the fingernail bed and can also lead to convulsions.

Chronic exposure symptoms

Chronic exposure is also linked to vitamin A deficiency; increased risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer; and increased lower respiratory diseases.

Sudden exposure symptoms

Sudden exposure to high doses of arsenic result in diarrhea, vomiting, muscle cramps, stomach pain and hair loss. Convulsions are also common in acute cases. The breath of a person who has arsenic poisoning may smell like garlic.

Arsenic affects the skin, liver, kidneys and lungs. Acute exposure can cause these organs to begin shutting down, which leads to coma and can be fatal.

Arsenic Poisoning Causes

Arsenic poisoning can occur through the consumption of arsenic-laden water over an extended period of time. The most common cause of arsenic poisoning is contaminated groundwater. Arsenic can leak into groundwater, as it is already found in the earth. Excess runoff that comes from industrial plants can also be found in groundwater.

There are additional causes for arsenic poisoning, which consist of:

  • Smoking tobacco
  • Breathing air that has been contaminated with arsenic from mines or plants
  • Residing close to industrialized areas
  • Nearby waste or landfill sites
  • Inhaling dust or smoke from waste or wood that was once treated with arsenic
  • Eating food that has been contaminated with arsenic (not common within the United States, however, some animal and seafood products can contain slight levels of arsenic)

Arsenic exposure can occur by consumption of water, foods, or beverages; inhalation; or through skin contact. There are slight levels of arsenic in water, food, and in the air.

How is Arsenic Poisoning Treated?

Since arsenic destroys blood cells as soon as it is ingested, successful treatment depends on how quickly medical care can be started.

Arsenic removal

The first step is to remove any source of arsenic, including from chemicals, food or water.

Hemodialysis, or filtering of the blood, can remove some of the arsenic before it has a chance to bind to the tissues in the body’s internal organs. Blood transfusions may also help. Flushing the intestines can remove additional arsenic that hasn’t been assimilated into the body.


Some drugs can bind to the arsenic and help remove it from the body, but these can be toxic and should only be given in an emergency medical situation.

Arsenic Poisoning Prevention

Chelating agents that separate arsenic from proteins in the blood can prevent arsenic poisoning from becoming more serious; this is ideal for acute cases. A well-rounded diet that contains ample amounts of potassium can help prevent arsenic poisoning. Potassium lowers the risk of a heart problem that arsenic can cause that is potentially life threatening.

If an individual suspects that they have been exposed to arsenic poisoning, they should be tested immediately. Arsenic tests can measure the levels of arsenic that is present in the urine, blood, fingernails, and hair. Urine tests are most effective for recent arsenic exposure.

Tests cannot predict the affect of arsenic levels on overall health, but are incredibly helpful in determining if arsenic is absent or present. The best course of prevention is to avoid areas in which high arsenic levels are present. In order to determine the location of and severity to prevent further exposure, tests should be conducted to understand the level and severity of the arsenic exposure.

Last Reviewed:
October 09, 2016
Last Updated:
November 09, 2017