Arsenic is a serious cancer-causing agent. How do we know this? Because scientists have linked high arsenic levels in drinking water and other types of exposures with higher cancer rates. Here we’ll discuss a few major studies and how we reduce arsenic exposure. We’ll also discuss strategies to eliminate toxic arsenic from the body.
Arsenic and multiple cancers
A number of studies have linked arsenic with multiple types of cancer. The most linked cancer types have been skin cancers, lung cancers, and urinary cancers and bladder cancers.
Because squamous cells are particularly sensitive to having their DNA altered by arsenic exposure, any organ or location with squamous cells are at risk of cancer with high arsenic exposure. This means the skin, throat, bladder, mouth, lungs and much of the digestive tract have a higher risk of cancer as a result of arsenic exposure.
Even what was considered safe levels of arsenic in drinking water has now been linked to bladder and kidney cancer according to a 2018 study from Nova Scotia.
A 30-year review of research from Cancer Care Ontario and the Dalhousie University in 2014 found that increased arsenic exposure is linked to more kidney cancers and bladder cancers. As the arsenic levels go up in drinking water, kidney and bladder cancer rates also go up.
It is therefore not a coincidence that high arsenic levels in the drinking waters of some areas have also been linked with skin lesions. A 2006 study from India’s Jadavpur University found in testing nearly 1,000 people, that nearly 20 percent of the adults had skin lesions in high-arsenic areas of the West Bengal area of the Ganges region. They also found high rates of skin cancer.
Low-level arsenic exposure can also increase the risk of prostate cancer. A 2017 study from the University of Iowa found that people who drank water from wells with 2.07 or more parts per billion of arsenic had between 23 percent and 45 percent increased risk of prostate cancer.
This is considered low-level because drinking water with more than 10 parts per billion is typically considered to be cancer-causing from most of the global research.
Other types of cancers are also linked to arsenic. For example, a 2015 study from China’s The Medical College of Qingdao University analyzed research data around the world and found that long-term exposure in drinking water nearly doubled the risk of liver cancer in many parts of the world.
Multiple cancers were also found in 2011 research at the National Health and Environmental Health Effects Research Laboratory. The research studied the interaction of arsenic chemicals with the sulfur within proteins. They also found that arsenic interaction in the body produced free radicals, which damage cell membranes and those tissue systems made of those cells.
Symptoms of immediate arsenic exposure include gastrointestinal pain. They can also include fatality at higher levels.
Lung cancer and arsenic
Lung cancer was a recent addition to the list of cancers caused by arsenic. A 2017 study from Taiwan’s National Cheng Kung University tested 243 town populations in Taiwan. They measured their arsenic levels in their drinking water against their lung cancer rates.
They found towns with increased arsenic in their water showed a significant increase in lung cancer rates. For every one percent increase, there was a 0.27 per 100,000 incidence of cancer in men and .13 per 100,000 in women.
Confirming the aforementioned, the type of lung cancer most prevalent was squamous cell cancer of the lungs.
What happens when children are exposed?
Childhood exposure can have significant effects according to the research. Exposure to arsenic during infancy or during the prenatal period has been associated with increased risk of lung cancer along with a myriad of neuropathic and developmental disorders.
Difference between natural and toxic arsenic
Natural arsenic is found in trace levels within soils and rocks. As you may know, rock-salt is a healthy source of natural arsenic. The body utilizes natural arsenic in trace amounts for a number of enzymatic and neurotransmitter compounds.
For this reason, natural arsenic, in natural, trace levels, is healthy. The body will also use methylation to reduce arsenic to a harmless compound.
But when arsenic compounds are introduced into through industrial combustion or petrochemicals, they will oxidize and become unstable. The reaction seen most often producing this instability is a process catalyzed by arsenic methyltransferase.
Arsenic methyltransferase reduces the arsenic compound from pentavalency to trivalency. During the step to the trivalent version, the arsenic is a radical that can damage cells and tissues.
In healthy people, the body’s oxidative methylation process can return even this form of the less harmless pentatavalency form.
We will discuss how to boost methylation in the body below.
Reducing our arsenic exposure
Arsenic is increasingly contaminating our foods, our air, our water and our soils. Compounded arsenic is a common ingredient in pesticides and many processed food products. This is because arsenic is toxic to insects and microorganisms (not to mention humans). It is used in wood preservatives and many building materials. It is consistently a byproduct of industrial plant production and building manufacturing. Arsenic is also often a compound used in chemotherapy drugs.
The semiconductors gallium arsenide, aluminum arsenide and others are arsenic alloys. According to U.S. Geological Survey studies, leading producers of arsenic for industrial use are China, Chile, Peru and Morocco. China produces nearly half of the world’s supply of industrial arsenic.
As a result of its widespread use, arsenic is increasingly found in drinking water, especially in groundwater basins within industrial areas.
These wells may be contaminated with arsenic due to local industrial farming or industrial manufacturing of some sort. Especially in areas where there are coal-fired plants, because coal tends to contain a lot of arsenic. Significant auto pollution can also peak airborne arsenic levels.
The first and most urgent means of reducing arsenic exposure is to only drink water that’s been filtered through a good water filter that screens out arsenic. Many of today’s popular filters are rated to remove significant arsenic levels. For a discussion on the best choices for water filters, consider my book, “Pure Water.”
Another common source is consuming arsenic in foods. We have discussed arsenic levels in rice, for example. Organic rice has significantly less arsenic according to our findings. Other organic foods will contain less arsenic because of arsenic levels in pesticides and herbicides.
Other foods and even herbs can be contaminated with arsenic, but usually, these sources aren’t significant because they will not be eaten as consistently.
Nevertheless, carefully checking the labels of our foods or simply knowing the origin of our foods is critical to avoiding arsenic. Avoiding foods and herbs grown in regions most known to contain arsenic is a good idea. Here is a map showing regions most affected by arsenic in groundwater:
The red regions are areas where groundwater is contaminated with high arsenic levels. As you can see from this map, the U.S. is not excluded. And not all regions of India and China are contaminated.
Furthermore, as mentioned above, low-level contamination can also be problematic. And these are not showing up in the map. So become aware of the contaminant levels in your local drinking and bathing water. Most municipality water agencies publish their contamination levels on the internet today. If they don’t, contact them and ask them to send you their most recent water testing results. At least in the U.S., they are regulated by the EPA so they have to.
If you are using well-water from a private well, this can be more problematic. You will likely have to pay a testing laboratory to test your water for arsenic (or any other contaminant). Most local water authorities will test your water for a reasonable fee.
What we can do about previous exposure
I mentioned methylation above. Our body’s ability to methylate will help reduce the oxidative free radical forms of arsenic into less harmful compounds. What helps our body’s methylation efforts, you may ask?
One of the best facilities for reducing our risk of long-term effects of arsenic is to employ a strong B-vitamin supplementation program. This is because B-vitamins are what we call methyl-donors. They donate the needed methyl groups, which give our body more ammunition to reduce free radicals within the body.
This was confirmed by a 2017 study from the Keck Medical School at UCLA. The researchers tested 418 people with arsenic-related cardiovascular disease from New Hampshire. They found that those with good B-vitamin supplementation had reduced levels of arsenic in their urinary samples.
Good B-vitamin supplementation also should include natural folate consumption. Folates, as documented by researchers from the University of North Carolina, are great strategies for helping the body eliminate toxic arsenic.
Supplementing folic acid is not the same as getting sufficient folate. There are sometimes side effects of folic acid over-supplementation. Research has linked too much folic acid with cancer in women, for example.
Good natural folate sources include leafy green vegetables, broccoli, peas, beans and asparagus.
For intense arsenic exposure, chelation is an option. Chelation using Dimercaptosuccinic acid (DMSA) has been shown successful in clinical use.
A 2013 review by Dr. Michael Kosnett from the University of Colorado Medical School confirms from 70 years of clinical use that DMSA is a useful chelation therapy agent for arsenic. (See a doctor if you are seeking chelation therapy.)
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Case Adams is a California Naturopath and a Board Certified Alternative Medicine Practitioner with a PhD in Natural Health Sciences, and diplomas in Homeopathy, Aromatherapy, Bach Flower Remedies, Blood Chemistry, Clinical Nutritional Counseling and Colon Hydrotherapy. He has authored 26 books on natural healing strategies.