Classed as a heavy metal, arsenic is a chemical element that can exist in metallic (grey, black or yellow) and ionic forms. Throughout history, arsenic has been employed as a pesticide; a pigment and as a medical agent. It has also been used as an agent to inflict harm on others (use with criminal intent). The chemical is also mixed with lead or copper to strengthen alloys.
Where arsenic is found
Used in the manufacture of weed killers and insecticides, arsenic can also be found as a contaminant in water or food sources. Foods most commonly found to be contaminated by arsenic include rice, fruit and vegetables, as well as shellfish and other types of seafood. Arsenic poisoning is typically the result of exposure to the chemical during accidents at work or following ingestion of contaminated food, water or wine. Illegally distilled spirits can also be responsible for poisoning by arsenic.
How arsenic damages living cells
Arsenic can affect a person through inhalation, ingestion or skin contact. Also often referred to as a metalloid, arsenic and some compounds thereof react with proteins (in particular the thiol portions of proteins). Uncoupling the oxidative phosphorylation process of proteins, it renders most cellular functions inactive. It is subsequently a deadly poison to the majority of biological systems, with the exception of a few species of bacteria.
Symptoms of poisoning
Immediate or acute symptoms of exposure to toxic levels of arsenic may include:
- Abdominal pain
- Cardiac problems
- Dark (or black water) urine
- Haemolysis (red blood cell destruction)
Depending on the level of exposure, death may also be a consequence.
Exposure to lower levels of arsenic over prolonged periods of time may result in changes to the skin (discolouration or darkening; swelling or redness). Bumps similar to warts or corns (hyperkeratosis) may also develop, as may white lines known as Mee’s lines on fingernails. Motor and sensory nerve defects may also develop, as may kidney and liver function problems. Long-term exposure to arsenic has also been linked to the risk of developing skin; lung, kidney or bladder cancer.
Get professional help
If you were exposed to toxic levels of arsenic during a work accident, you may be entitled to work injury compensation. Get professional help with your industrial injury claim by visiting Accident Advice Helpline’s website and filling in the 30-second test or by calling our freephone helpline on 0800 689 0500.
Date Published: February 27, 2015
Author: Accident Advice