Despite being well-known as a poison and a carcinogen, is our daily dose of arsenic on the rise?
By: Ringo Bones
A rather alarming news story about arsenic appeared last year back in the last week of November 2011 where it was divulged that the United States Department of Agriculture, USDA, has since established the allowable limits of arsenic in locally produced and packaged apple juice at 23 parts per billion while the United States Food and Drug Administration’s established allowable limits for arsenic in bottled water is set at 6 parts per billion. And just back in September 20, 2012, both the FDA and Consumer Reports though each of their independent lab tests had uncovered that rice products in the United States from baby food to rice crispies are contaminated with arsenic above allowable limits.
The levels might seem alarming, but the US Food and Drug Administration has long ago labeled arsenic a Level 1 Carcinogen and according to the FDA’s established guidelines, the sub-lethal dose of arsenic at around 20 to 30 parts per billion has been known to cause lung, liver and bladder cancers – especially inorganic arsenic compounds. And the only advise both the FDA and Consumer Reports can give to dotting parents is to reduce their babies serving of rice-containing prepackaged baby food to once a week. But should everyone be alarmed by their “still-detectible” by current chemical laboratory analysis methods of their daily dose of arsenic?
Arsenic – chemical symbol As – is a metallic chemical element and is a member of the nitrogen family, which also includes antimony, bismuth, nitrogen and phosphorous. Arsenic ores occur in the form of sulfides, arsenides, arsenates and arsenates. The most plentiful of arsenic-containing minerals are arsenical pyrites. The world’s leading producers of arsenic are France, Mexico, Sweden and the United States. Compounds of arsenic were known in ancient times, one of the earliest references to them being in the writings of the Greek philosopher Theophrastus around 200 B.C. The discovery of the element is generally credited to Albertus Magnus – a 13th Century German philosopher and writer on physics. In 1733 George Brandt established that white arsenic was actually the oxide of the element and in 1817 Jons Jakob Berzelius determined the weight relationship of arsenic to the other chemical elements.
The principal use of elemental arsenic is as a constituent of alloys. Added to copper-based alloys, arsenic forms arsenic brasses and bronzes, speculum metal and alloys for high-temperature uses; added to lead-based alloys, arsenic is used for battery grids, bearings and cable sheaths; and alloyed with elemental lead it is used for hardening shot. However, most of the arsenic used commercially is in the form of its compounds. Although water-soluble compounds are poisonous, in small doses they are valuable in medicine for the treatment of diseases of the skin and respiratory organs and were used before the era of antibiotics in treating syphilis and arsenicals are now used to treat drug-resistant / antibiotic resistant strains of syphilis and gonorrhea. Before they were banned for environmental reasons, arsenic compounds are also used in the manufacture of insecticides, rodent poisons, weed killers and glassware, for preserving hides and museum specimens and in tanning leather.
Arsenic became a poison of choice since ancient times because its “symptoms” on the unfortunate victim resembles that of ordinary cholera. And the most likely reason why apples produced in the United States – especially in Florida – contain higher traces of arsenic compared to ones grown elsewhere is that not only because arsenic-containing insecticides were widely used in the United States during the early part of the 20th Century but also because Florida was the main stash point of the US Army’s then strategic stockpiles of Lewisite – an arsenic containing chemical warfare agent – before it was rendered tactically obsolete around the 1950s by more effective nerve agents like Sarin and VX. Lewisite stockpiles were not destroyed safely fast enough before a significant portion of it managed to seep into Florida’s groundwater system. Could British Anti Lewisite or BAL pills be now be made mandatory “daily vitamin pills” for Florida’s residents?