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Arsenic in Drinking Water: Increased Risk of Respiratory Infections and Lung Damage Following Fetal Exposure

By Roberta Attanasio

Odorless and tasteless, arsenic lurks everywhere – in rice and in chicken breasts, in apple juice and in drinking water. It’s all around, but not in amounts sufficient to cause acute (short-term) poisoning. On the other hand, chronic (long-term) exposure to lower arsenic doses occurs way too often, and may lead to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancers and other human disorders.

Contamination of drinking water by arsenic is a global health threat. Presence of arsenic in groundwater is largely the result of minerals dissolving from weathered rocks and soils. In addition, arsenic enters the drinking water supply because of runoff from orchards, electronics production waste or other industrial activities.

Bangladesh is considered a hot-spot for groundwater contamination with arsenic – however, the water supply is contaminated in many regions all around the world. Results from a study recently published in the journal Science (August 2013) indicate that in China 19.6 million people are at risk of being affected by the consumption of arsenic-contaminated groundwater.

Arsenic in Groundwater of the United States, Trace Elements National Synthesis Project, U.S. Geological Survey.


Widespread high concentrations of arsenic are present in the groundwater of several areas of the U.S., including the West, the Midwest, parts of Texas, and the Northeast. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) develops maps that show where and to what extent arsenic occurs in groundwater across the country – The current maps are based on samples from 31,350 wells.

Chronic exposure to arsenic through drinking water is linked to respiratory diseases. Arsenic affects the function of the immune system as well as lung development and causes increased susceptibility to respiratory infections. Results from a study carried out in Bangladesh and published in August in the journal American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine show that arsenic induces lung damage similar to the damage induced by decades of tobacco smoking. The results also show that, especially in males, tobacco smoking makes arsenic-related damage even worse.

“Restrictive lung defects, such as we saw in those exposed to well-water arsenic, are usually progressive and irreversible,” said Habibul Ahsan, Director of the Center for Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention at the University of Chicago Medicine and lead author of the study. “They can lead over time to serious lung disease.”

As for many other pollutants, a major concern is prenatal exposure, which may lead to adverse health effects later on in life. Results from studies carried out in animal models suggest that arsenic exposure during adult and fetal life is linked to development of respiratory infections. In 2009, Courtney Kozul and collaborators published a study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives showing that, in adult mice, arsenic exposure through drinking water significantly compromises the immune response to infection by influenza virus.

Following up on this study, just a few weeks ago, a team of researchers from Australia published in Environmental Health Perspectives a study in which mice were exposed to arsenic during fetal life (pregnant mice were given drinking water containing arsenic – arsenic crosses the placenta and, therefore, reaches the fetus). Results from the study show that pups born from exposed mothers exhibit abnormal responses to influenza infection in early life.  In addition, results show that arsenic exposure in early life leads to  lung damage in adulthood.

At this point, it is reasonable to ask whether or not similar effects could be present in humans. On the basis of published studies, the answer seems to be yes. During a study performed in Bangladesh a few years ago, Anisur Rahman and collaborators assessed maternal exposure by measuring levels of arsenic in urine samples collected during pregnancy. Once born, the babies were evaluated every month for symptoms of lower respiratory tract infection and diarrhea up to 1 year of age. The results of the study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2011, show that arsenic exposure during pregnancy is associated with increased risk of contracting infectious diseases for the first year of life.

More recently, similar results were obtained by Shohreh Farzan and colleagues through a study conducted on a mother-infant US population and published in Environmental Research (June 2013). The researchers evaluated the association between maternal levels of arsenic in urine during pregnancy and risk of infection in infants and found that elevated maternal concentrations of arsenic were associated with infant infections, including upper respiratory infections and colds.

Exposure to arsenic in the studies by Rahman and by Farzan could have occurred not just by drinking water – indeed, ingestion of contaminated food is often responsible for arsenic intake. Intake from air is also possible. However, both studies indicate that, in human populations, maternal exposure to arsenic during pregnancy leads to serious adverse health effects in the infants.  


  • P. Shvidkaya

    While most people have heard of this naturally occurring metalloid and its toxicity, many of us including myself might believe that only metal smelters or those working in plants that manufacture and distribute products containing arsenic are at risk for exposure. I am surprised to learn that small amounts of arsenic could be found in water, fruits, vegetables, and grains to list a few. Since chronic exposure to traces of arsenic could accumulate in the body, it made me wonder, how often am I exposed to arsenic? Could my fatigue in part be a result of accumulated concentrations of toxins such as arsenic, and are there healthy ways to help us detox from arsenic build up?

    A preliminary study conducted in 2003 suggested that polyphenol and other antioxidants in combination with a variety of vitamins, selenium, and zinc given to rabbits suffering from arsenic toxicity were effective in detoxifying the body from arsenic. The antioxidant, vitamins, and minerals diminished oxidative stress, and decreased cellular inflammatory mediators http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12635832. A 2005 study conducted in India showed similar results in rats. They concluded that in combination, both folic acid and vitamin B12 reduced the toxic effects of arsenic in pancreatic tissue of rats http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16214333. A more recent study, concluded that [6]-gingerol which is an isolate from ginger root not only reduces oxidative stress but also mitigates arsenic induced hypoglycemic effects and possibly prevents pancreatic cell damage in mice http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22285432.

    I believe it’s important to be cognizant of our bodies and nourish our organs in a way that could help them detox potentially harmful substances like arsenic.

  • MEE

    I found this article about arsenic interesting. I’ve learned a lot about different chemicals that are harmful or carcinogenic to our body. Arsenic can cause respiratory infections and lung damage. Arsenic is most common in drinking water and is most associated with skin cancer. Not many studies have been done on immunological effects but immunosupression enhances cancer development. I read arsenic can alter cytokine secretion, and it can increase the secretion of certain inflammatory molecules causing a chronic state of inflammation that is related to cancer development. https://www.novapublishers.com/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=13770 It has different effects depending on a person’s immune system, gender and nutritional status. The effects of arsenic also depend on the amount when exposed. It seems a large exposure has the most clear-cut effects of gastrointestinal symptoms, nervous system disruption and death. Long-term exposure effects could be neurological effects, respiratory effects, and cancer. Higher levels of exposure can be seen in urban areas and industrial areas and in those that drink groundwater. I found in Georgia arsenic is encountered less frequently. As far as infants, above the studies found effects of arsenic in infants up to one year of age. Other studies suggest you may see the effects later in life as well.

  • aa_alidina

    Its astonishing to know that low levels of Arsenic can cause such major problems in children and adults. Drinking water is a common cause of getting in contact with low level in Arsenic, that why i believe it such a global threat. All humans require drinking water, so how can you be sure that the water we are drinking doesn’t contain low levels Arsenic. These days one can never be sure that they are chronically being poisoned, even by drinking water.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23866971 This Study done by University of Miami, shows the association between in Utero arsenic exposure, placental gene expression, and infant birth weight. The more you are exposed to Arsenic the higher the chances of having a baby with lower birth weight. Birth weight outcomes seem to be highly related to arsenic exposure. It is sad that more people are not aware of these issues.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23769261 This Study also shows the effects of in utero arsenic exposure and infant infection. I am sure not many pregnant women are aware of the possibility of arsenic presence in drinking water and how this could potentially harm their baby.

    Hopefully in the near future more steps will be taken to remove the traces of arsenic from drinking water.

    • Ray Kinney

      If you drink well water, get it tested if your geographic area is known to have elevated arsenic in groundwater. Seafood on the west coast US often has arsenic levels increased. Arsenic compounds were often historically used as pesticides in fruit orchards, so, if your garden is located on land that previously had been an orchard, arsenic and lead just might be increased in your food. Pressure treated wood used to contain a lot of arsenic (CCA), where decks and floating docks were built over water or on water, arsenic may have been leaching out as water pollution. Current pressure treated wood utilizes copper, but that can often leach out and cause its own pollutant adverse effects in aquatic systems as well.

  • myshell3

    I had heard of arsenic poisoning before but until recently didn’t realize it could have such an effect on a person’s future immune function. This makes sense though because arsenic has also been shown to be carcinogenic. Is it possible that this impaired immune function allows cancer cells to more easily evade the immune system and proliferate?

    When looking for a possible answer to this question, I came across an article that suggests that it’s actually pro-inflammatory signals are induced in the lungs upon exposure to arsenic. These signals have been suggested to “contribute to malignant transformation of cells.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24004609. So not only can arsenic impair one’s ability to clear infectious agents, it also promotes inflammation that can lead to cancer.


    Arsenic now is a common problem globally. As a citizen of Bangladesh, I have experienced many of the common issues that was mentioned in the article. Now days, people have access to pure drinking water because of “deep tube-well” but the number is very insignificant comparing to the total population of Bangladesh. Because of overpopulation there are barely any natural resources other than ground water and in the cities the situation is even worse. A few years ago, it was reported that the areas with high contamination, most of the trees and plants are also contaminated. There are many death every year because of the negative effects of arsenic and other pollutants alone and many data are not even reported. The chances for a quick recovery is very narrow but the government claims to be working to reduce it to the maximum.

    • Andrew R

      It is unfortunate that this is not a rare occurrence. It is interesting and unnerving to compare the map of arsenic groundwater in the US to the census agriculture atlas map (http://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2007/Online_Highlights/Ag_Atlas_Maps/Farms/Land_in_Farms_and_Land_Use/07-M096.php). There is a pretty good overlap of places that have contaminated groundwater and farmland. It makes me wonder if there isn’t an increase in problems as described in Environmental Health article, “Arsenic immunotoxicity: a review.” (http://www.ehjournal.net/content/12/1/73). Apart from trying to spread awareness, I always wonder what I could do to make a difference.


        In order to initiate making a difference, the first step is to make everyone aware of the issue. If I have cancer and I am not aware of it, then I would not be able to take action to do anything to make a “difference”. Even though this is not a rare occurrence, yet we see the affects of arsenic every year. As we all know, the toxicity of arsenic doesnt affect in a day or two. its often compared to slow poisoning because thats exactly what it does. So we all have to try our best to make as many people aware about this toxic substance in order to make a little difference.

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