Jasarevic: Heavy metals exposed—arsenic

Over the next few months, I will review five different heavy metals, along with their sources and health impacts. This week it’s all about arsenic.

Dermatitis is a general term for inflammation of the skin such as atopic dermatitis (eczema), seborrheic dermatitis, contact dermatitis, or simply a rash of unknown origin. Changes in the skin can be hard to diagnose. There are many causes and triggers, but one cause that is often overlooked is heavy metal arsenic.

Common sources of arsenic come from food, water and air. Although a naturally occurring element, arsenic is hazardous to our health. Two forms of arsenic are organic (less toxic) and inorganic, which is a classified carcinogen (cancer-causing). Arsenic has many sources: groundwater, wood preservatives, herbicides, insecticides, pesticides, etc.

Organic arsenic can be found in poultry and some shellfish such as shrimp and crab. Arsenic is an approved feed supplement that farmers use to control intestinal parasites in poultry and up to 65 per cent of arsenic in poultry is inorganic. Arsenic is also used to “disinfect” chickens as they go through the mill to kill any bacteria prior to packaging. As such, I support local poultry farmers, and choose organic meats over large commercial producers.

Drinking water can also be a large source of inorganic arsenic. Numerous studies support the deleterious health effects linking it to an increased risk of cancer, and non-cancerous skin lesions.  Since the Okanagan is home to golf courses, orchards, wineries, and other farming, testing your unfiltered drinking water at home would be beneficial.

Arsenic is also used to preserve wood, in the form of copper-chromated arsenic (CCA), specifically in pressure treated lumber. Backyard decks and wooden playgrounds are a common source. Although the U.S. EPA required CCA-wood be withdrawn from the residential marketplace in 2003, many of these structures still remain a large source of exposure. Additionally, specific arsenic-containing pesticides are commonly sprayed on residential and park lawns, and golf course greens. The EPA is slowly phasing out arsenic-containing pesticides.

Low dose daily exposure can cause subtle health changes.  Tissues most affected include the skin, nasal passages, lungs, gastrointestinal tract, and liver. Chronic low-dose arsenic exposure can increase risk for epithelial cancers such as Bowen’s disease, squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma.

Early signs of arsenic exposure affecting the skin include keratosis, thickening and scaling of the skin and hyperpigmentation. Chronic symptoms may take 2-8 weeks to appear after original exposure. Hyperpigmentation can be small, discoloured spots, diffuse, dark brown spots, or darkening of the skin on the limbs or trunk – all known as melanosis.

Arsenic-induced skin lesions are often an afterthought. If you have had unexplained skin lesions for some time, have been examined by your family doctor and/or dermatologist but symptoms persist, consider having a heavy metal urine test through a naturopathic doctor.


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