What Is Arsenic Poisoning?

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Arsenic poisoning is a type of heavy metal poisoning. Arsenic is a metalloid element found naturally in the environment. Poisoning occurs when a person ingests too much arsenic. This can happen through the contamination of food and water. You can also be exposed to arsenic in the air in the form of a gas. 

Because arsenic has no odor or taste, it is impossible to detect. However, arsenic poisoning symptoms may be a clue that someone has been exposed.

Types of Arsenic

There are two types of arsenic:

  • Organic: This type of arsenic is found in plants and animals. For example, shellfish contain arsenic. 
  • Inorganic: Inorganic arsenic is more dangerous than organic arsenic. It is often a by-product of specific industries but can also be found in water.

Arsenic Poisoning Symptoms

Arsenic poisoning can be acute or chronic. If you’re exposed to high levels of arsenic all at once, you’ll typically experience symptoms within 30 to 60 minutes. 

Symptoms of acute poisoning include:

  • Garlic or metal taste in your mouth
  • Vomiting, sometimes with blood
  • Headache
  • Severe diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain

Without treatment, your cardiovascular and central nervous systems will begin to shut down, and death will occur within a few hours.

Symptoms of Arsenic Poisoning

Verywell / Danie Drankwalter

You can also be exposed to small amounts of arsenic over a long period. Symptoms of chronic exposure include:

  • Frequent bouts of diarrhea
  • Skin changes such as thickening or discoloration
  • Corns (small areas of hardened skin with a central core) on the soles of your feet, palms, or torso
  • Abnormal heartbeat
  • Nausea
  • Partial paralysis
  • Hand or feet numbness
  • Blindness 
  • Seizures (abnormal electrical activity in the brain)
  • Drowsiness 

Other potential long-term effects include:

While symptoms of acute arsenic poisoning usually happen within an hour, symptoms of chronic exposure can take up to eight weeks to present themselves.

Causes of Arsenic Poisoning

You can be exposed to arsenic in various ways, including through:

  • Food: Arsenic in food tends to be the organic form, which is less concerning than the inorganic form. Foods containing high arsenic levels include rice, seafood, mushrooms, rice cereals, and poultry. 
  • Water: In some regions of the world, arsenic occurs naturally in drinking water; often, drinking sources contaminated with arsenic are those in rural communities and places where arsenic can leach in from the ground. 
  • Certain industries: Arsenic is not commonly manufactured as it once was. However, some industries still use arsenic. These include wood treating and smelting industries. Tobacco and fossil fuel industries may also release arsenic into the air. 
  • Environmental exposure: Industrial buildings and other past sources of arsenic may expose people to arsenic fumes. In the case of agricultural contamination, arsenic may also leach into food sources.

Arsenic Regulation

This substance is highly regulated because of toxicity and adverse effects linked to arsenic exposure. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limits arsenic levels to 10 micrograms per liter of U.S. drinking water. The limit for foods is specific to those that typically contain higher levels of arsenic, such as rice cereal (100 parts per billion).

Arsenic Poisoning Diagnosis

Because symptoms aren’t always the same in everyone, it can be difficult for a healthcare professional to diagnose arsenic from a physical examination and medical history alone. Symptoms of chronic exposure may also be more vague and difficult to identify.

Testing for arsenic can be done using:

  • Urine tests
  • Blood tests
  • Fingernail analysis
  • Hair analysis

How Can I Avoid Arsenic Exposure?

You can limit your exposure to arsenic by:

  • Ask about arsenic levels in your local drinking water source.
  • Get private water sources regularly tested for arsenic and other contaminants.
  • Avoid regularly eating large amounts of foods that contain higher levels of arsenic.
  • Find out about workplace safety measures related to arsenic exposure. Contact the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) if you feel safety regulations aren’t properly adhered to.

Keep in mind that most household water filters don’t remove arsenic from drinking water.

Treating Arsenic Poisoning

There’s no specific treatment for arsenic poisoning. However, chelation therapy may help in some cases.

This treatment involves injecting or ingesting a chelating agent. Once in your bloodstream, it combines with the toxic arsenic and helps expel it from the body. Chelating agents aren’t always recommended because they have adverse effects and aren’t helpful for chronic arsenic exposure.

Otherwise, treatment aims to manage symptoms. For example, a doctor might treat you with intravenous (IV, infused into a vein) hydration to counteract the effects of severe diarrhea.

Summary

Arsenic is a heavy metal that occurs naturally. Ingesting or breathing in too much of it can cause harmful effects. Poisoning can be chronic (over a long time) or acute (a sudden onset).

Because arsenic is challenging to detect without testing, you may not know you’ve been exposed. Diagnosis involves various lab tests that check for arsenic. Treatment aims at managing symptoms. 

A Word From Verywell

If you suspect you’ve been exposed to arsenic, it’s essential to see a doctor for treatment. If the source of arsenic is known, it’s also vital to avoid further exposing yourself to the substance. 

While arsenic can’t be detected because it has no smell or taste, you can avoid exposing yourself by finding out about levels in your water supply or getting your private water supply tested.

If you work somewhere where arsenic exposure is possible, ask about safety regulations in place to minimize chronic arsenic exposure. 

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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  5. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. How should patients overexposed to arsenic be treated and managed?