Arsenic is a naturally occurring chemical element found throughout our environment and its living systems. Arsenic can enter groundwater through erosion and weathering of soils, minerals, and ores. Arsenic compounds are used in the manufacture of a variety of products and may enter our environment directly from industrial effluents and indirectly from atmospheric deposition.
Arsenic exists in different chemical forms, which can be classified into two groups: organic arsenic and inorganic arsenic. Inorganic arsenic is considered to be the most toxic to human health, while organic arsenic is considered to be non-toxic.
Arsenic and Food
Arsenic can be found at very low levels (low parts per billion [ppb]) in many foods, including meat and poultry, milk and dairy products, bakery goods and cereals, vegetables, and fruits and fruit juices. These traces levels of arsenic generally reflect normal accumulation from the environment. Both organic and inorganic forms of arsenic can be found in food. While the levels of each depend on the type of food, inorganic arsenic is not usually found at high levels.
Higher levels of arsenic are generally found in fish and shellfish, but in the organic form, which is not of concern to human health.
Health Effects of Exposure to Inorganic Arsenic
Inorganic arsenic is not usually found at high levels in food. Long-term exposure (over many years or decades) to high levels of inorganic arsenic is known to contribute to the risk of human cancer and can affect the gastrointestinal tract, kidneys, liver, lungs and epidermis.
Short term exposure (days/weeks) to very high levels of inorganic arsenic can also cause various health effects including skin effects, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and numbness in hands and feet.
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