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Arsenic Back in the News: This Time in the Water (Some Water)

By Dr. Arthur Lavin

Readers of Real Answers with Dr. Lavin may recall a post from October of 2013 in which we discussed the topic of Arsenic.

In this post we presented background on what is arsenic, why it is a poison, and other concerns.

Recently a news story reminded us that this element is around us, and some products continue to expose us: https://nyti.ms/2LnOqyU

Arsenic, a Quick Reminder of What it is and What it Does

Arsenic is an element, meaning there are single atoms that are arsenic, like oxygen, helium, and all the other elements.   Arsenic is naturally occurring element, that is, it is not one of the many poisons that took humanity to invent and produce.  In that sense it is like lead, another element, we did not invent lead, it came, like arsenic, with the planet.  But like lead, we do things that can concentrate our exposure to it.

Arsenic is a true poison in the sense that it poisons processes that our lives depend on.  The key function that arsenic disrupts is the cell’s production of energy.  One of the most famous poisons disrupts the same process, cyanide.  The difference is that cyanide stops the cell from making energy rather dramatically, even completely, and instantly.  Arsenic is more insidious, it usually is not taken in enough of a dose to stop a cell from making energy, just forces it to make less.  The result is that over time many, many cells start dying off, slowly, but enough to cause organs to start failing.  After all, organs are nothing more than highly organized, large collections of cells.  If cells run out of energy, organs run out of function.   When the brain sputters, thinking begins to fail.  When the heart sputters from lack of cellular energy, heart failure ensues.  Cancers begin to sprout as the cells of the immune system weaken.  These effects take time, so one could be eating or drinking a high enough level of arsenic and not feel anything for many months, even years.

One good property of arsenic is that if you stop eating or drinking it, it washes out of the body very well, at which point it ceases to do further harm.

What the Doctor Says, Dr. Pepper.

Arsenic shows up in the water we drink and the food we eat depending on where they are found and manufactured.  For example, the rice plant for whatever reason, is very good at sucking atoms of arsenic out of the soil.  So rice grown in soils with arsenic will have lots of arsenic in it. Fortunately the arsenic congregates in the hull, so hull-free white rices are safer.

Now comes Dr. Pepper, actually the company is Keurig-Dr. Pepper, to announce that their brand of bottle water, Penafiel, has been found to have higher than accepted levels, and is now off the market.

Why We Like Tap

Tap water cannot be delivered without extensive government testing of all sorts of hazards, including infectious germs and poisonous chemicals.  There is no private company in existence that tests for, and eliminates, as many dangers as the US government.

So tap or bottle?  Tap is produced to deliver far fewer harms than bottled water.  So tap is better.

Here is  a great example.  In 2006, the EPA mandated that all tap water drop arsenic levels from a maximum of 50 micrograms in each liter to 10.  A measurable drop in cancer deaths in the US, attributable to the decreased arsenic level followed.   But….  This rule did not apply to private wells, including sources of bottled water.

One more point, the current level of 10 may still lead to disease, from ongoing low-level, organ damage, stay tuned, we may yet find a level under which poisoning from arsenic becomes minor.

BOTTOM LINES

  1. Arsenic is an element, #33 in the periodic table.  It is the Earth’s 53rd most abundant element in the planet, thankfully not more common or widespread.
  2. Arsenic is also a poison, really a famous one that was used to hurt people as a poison across history.  It works by blocking production of energy from cells.  If enough cells have enough energy blocked, organs made of those cells begin to fail.  Low levels of exposure to arsenic can affect brain development, heart function, thinking in alter life, many organ systems.
  3. This poison shows up mainly in water and rice.  In the US tap waters must reduce arsenic levels to keep them below a level of 10 mcg/L, which is far better than no limit, and has been shown already to have prevented cases of cancer.  Eating hulled white rice is an effective way to avoid arsenic exposure in rice.
  4. Recently the company Keurig-Dr. Pepper took its bottled water off the market because of elevated arsenic content.  This is a reminder to us all that tap water tends to be safer than bottled water because the US government keeps a closer eye on more potentially harmful contents in our tap water than any private company can.

To your health,
Dr. Arthur Lavin

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