What is Arsenic Used For?

What is Arsenic (Periodic symbol As)? When you think of Arsenic, your mind probably goes instantly to poison. We have all seen murder mysteries where some poor unsuspecting person becomes a victim of arsenic poisoning. But did you know that while Arsenic is a hazardous toxin, we consume it every day without realizing. Research is ongoing as to how the body uses a very small amount of it and how we can mitigate and manage the risk of exposure.

What is Arsenic?



Arsenic is an element. It is found in the periodic table with atomic number 33, under the symbol As. In nature, it is most commonly found in the earth’s crust. It is a component of various minerals found in rocks and earth.

arsenic on periodic table of elements

Its Uses

Arsenic is used by the industry in a number of ways. It is often found in lead alloys, which are used for metal manufacturing and in semiconductors. The toxic nature of this chemical element has led to compounds being widely used in pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides, as well as preservative type products for wood.
Three laboratory dropper bottles and a conical flask with different coloured liquids and labelled with standard labels as toxic, corrosive, irritant and flammable

Arsenic Toxicity

Danger toxic substances sign.

Arsenic is a known toxic substance and classed as a Group A carcinogen. It is clearly stated by the US Environmental Protection Agency that poses a serious risk to human health. The US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry have placed it at the top of its list of hazardous substances. Across the world, levels of Arsenic in groundwater are a major public health issue, with the World Health Organization confirming that it is the “most significant contaminant in drinking-water globally.” 

The main way that people absorb Arsenic is from diet. Very small trace amounts of this element make their way into water and plants. Some plants absorb it more readily, which is why you may have heard of rice as having relatively high levels compared to other foodstuffs. Rice does absorb it more easily than other plants. However, levels are still low. The amount of Arsenic in water systems for public use is monitored and limited to protect people from any damaging effects. However, some people get their water from other sources such as wells, which may have different levels of chemical elements. This can result in people consuming higher levels.

Effects of Arsenic Toxicity
arsenic deficiency and overdose 3d medical vector illustration isolated on white background

When a human being consumes a significant amount of Arsenic, the effects of poisoning (or arsenicosis) happen very quickly and progress very dramatically. Immediate effects of consuming Arsenic include headaches, pain in the abdomen, and severe vomiting and diarrhea. After a short time, the condition progresses rapidly to drowsiness, confusion, numbness, and cramping. In extreme cases, death occurs quickly after the onset of symptoms.

If a person is exposed to lower levels over a long period of time, perhaps by regular consumption of contaminated drinking water, then the symptoms are different. Changes in the skin occur, for example, lesions may appear, and the skin in certain areas may harden. Tissue death and skin cancer can result from these arsenic-induced skin changes.

Other cancers that are known to be linked to this mineral include lung cancer and bladder cancer. Cardiovascular disease is a major result of arsenic consumption, and there is such a thing as arsenic-induced heart attack. Disease of the lungs and pulmonary system and diabetes are also common in those who have been exposed.

Arsenic is particularly dangerous for pregnant women and children. Exposure before birth and in infancy can lead to long term health and development problems (including in cognitive function and intelligence outcomes) and an increased mortality rate.

For all ages and demographics, increased consumption leads to higher mortality rates, whether this is a rapid deterioration or prolonged ill-health.

Risks of poisoning from this element increase if a population has an unsafe drinking water supply or in those who work in specific industries such as smelting or producing Arsenic containing products such as pesticides or wood treatments.

How the Body Uses Arsenic
Cancer patients receiving chemotherapy treatment in a hospital.

Scientists have discovered that the human body does actually use a very small amount of Arsenic. The daily diet of most people around the world will contain somewhere around 1250 μg. This is a very tiny amount and more than covers any requirement that the body may have for this chemical element. Arsenic’s precise biological function is not entirely clear. Still, it is believed that some form of the element does play a role in the development and function of the nervous system. However, Arsenic is not recognized as an essential micronutrient, and official advice suggests that there are no benefits to increasing the amount of it in the diet because we all consume more than enough without even realizing from our normal diets. Arsenic does have its uses in the human body; one form, arsenic trioxide, is used in chemotherapy. This has severe side effects and must be used under careful medical supervision.

In the 1800s, Arsenic was briefly considered to be a healthful supplement (despite its use as a poison). People would take increasing doses of it for various purposes, and it was even used in lotions, medicines, and cosmetics. This caused a massive increase in mortality and cancer deaths, and the practice was soon abandoned as scientists began to more fully understand how this mineral changes the way enzymes function and leads to dysfunction and cell death. In more recent times, Arsenic has leaked into water supplies on a number of occasions and caused a surge in health complaints and a massive increase in cancer incidence.

Bottles of homeopathic globules, Thuja occidentalis, Plantago major drugs and mortar. Homeopathy medicine.

Homeopathic treatments rely on the memory of water, and so any substance in homeopathic treatment is diluted many, many times. A properly prepared homeopathic remedy would not contain a measurable level of As. Improperly prepared homeopathic treatments containing the element have been known to cause arsenic poisoning.

folic acid appears to have a beneficial effect in lowering blood arsenic levels

There are medical treatments that can help the body deal with high levels of Arsenic, and there is an ongoing public health effort to ensure drinking water is safe. Those with diets that consist mostly of rice are advised to try to vary the grains they consume, and research is ongoing into how certain other substances may help remove As from the body; for example, folic acid appears to have a beneficial effect in lowering blood arsenic levels. For the average person eating a normal diet, Arsenic should not be a concern. If you have a reason to suspect you have been exposed to As, then seek immediate medical attention so a simple test can ascertain the level of this element in your body.

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