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Arsenic in Drinking Water: Unveiling the Hidden Dangers and Solutions

TypeContaminantMax. Contaminant Level Goal (ppm)Max. Contaminant Level (ppm)
Required Treatment Technique
Potential Health Effects from Long-Term Exposure Above the MCL (unless specified as short-term)Sources of Contaminant in Drinking WaterConsumer Treatment MethodOfficial Sources
Inorganic ChemicalsArsenic00.01Skin damage or problems with circulatory systems, and may have increased risk of getting cancerErosion of natural deposits; runoff from orchards and cotton farms, runoff from glass and electronics production wastesReverse Osmosis, Activated Alumina, Distillation, Ion Exchange, GFO/GFHCDC, NSF, EPA, CDC
National Primary Drinking Water Regulations List of Contaminants

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that can be found in water supplies across the world. This toxic contaminant poses significant health risks when ingested over long periods of time. Ingesting arsenic through drinking water has been linked to various illnesses and health complications, emphasizing the importance of ensuring safe water sources for communities.

Long-term exposure to arsenic in drinking water can lead to severe health consequences such as cancer, skin lesions, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, as highlighted by the World Health Organization. Additionally, exposure during pregnancy and early childhood has been associated with cognitive development issues and increased mortality rates among young adults.

In response to the dangers posed by arsenic, regulatory bodies like the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) have enacted stricter limits on arsenic levels in public water supplies. In 2001, the USEPA lowered the maximum contaminant level (MCL) for arsenic in drinking water from 50 micrograms per liter to 10 micrograms per liter. These efforts aim to protect communities and reduce adverse health effects associated with arsenic exposure.

Arsenic in Drinking Water

Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com – CC-BY-SA-3.0,
CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Arsenic is a naturally occurring chemical element found in the Earth’s crust and can be detected in water, air, and soil. It varies by locality and can pose a risk to public health when present in drinking water sources, such as groundwater and wells.

In 2001, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lowered the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for arsenic in public-water supplies to 10 micrograms per liter (µg/L) from 50 µg/L, as it is toxic at low levels and a known carcinogen. Despite these regulatory efforts, some areas still face elevated concentrations of arsenic in their drinking water, necessitating further action to protect public health.

Exposure to arsenic in drinking water can have both immediate and long-term health consequences. Symptoms of immediate arsenic poisoning may include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Prolonged exposure to arsenic-contaminated water can lead to more severe health issues, such as skin changes like darkening and lesions, cancer, and even diabetes.

Children are particularly vulnerable to the negative health effects of arsenic, as their developing bodies can more readily absorb toxic substances. Additionally, the consumption of certain foods, such as rice, which can absorb arsenic from the soil during growth, could contribute to higher levels of arsenic exposure.

There are several sources of arsenic contamination in the environment, including the natural weathering of rocks and soils and human activities such as the application of pesticides and industrial production. Dust generated from contaminated soils can release arsenic into the air, further contributing to the spread of this toxic element and increasing the risk of exposure for those living in affected areas.

To address the presence of arsenic in drinking water, various treatment methods are available. Some options include water filtering systems that use activated alumina or reverse osmosis to remove arsenic, or regular testing and monitoring by water utilities to ensure compliance with EPA standards. By implementing these measures, communities can mitigate the public health risks posed by arsenic and provide safer drinking water to their residents.

How to Test for Arsenic in Drinking Water

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element found in soil, rocks, and water, which can be present in both organic and inorganic forms. Inorganic arsenic is more toxic and commonly found in contaminated groundwater, posing health risks such as skin lesions, heart disease, and an increased risk of cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a maximum limit of 10 parts per billion (ppb) for arsenic in drinking water, highlighting the importance of testing for its presence in both private wells and public water systems.

To test arsenic levels in drinking water, there are several methods available. One option is to use home water arsenic testing kits, which are easy to use and typically provide results within minutes. These kits often include a color chart for interpreting the results and determining if the water is within the recommended safety limits set by the WHO and other regulatory agencies. Home testing kits are best used as an initial screening tool and can be purchased from various online retailers or local stores. To ensure accurate results, it is advisable to carefully follow the instructions included in the testing kit.

Another option for testing arsenic levels in drinking water is to send a sample to a certified laboratory that specializes in water quality analysis. This approach is more accurate and provides a comprehensive report on the water’s arsenic content along with other potential contaminants. To collect water samples for laboratory testing, follow the instructions provided by the lab, as they may have specific requirements for sample collection, storage, and transportation. Laboratory test results will typically indicate if the water is within acceptable safety limits or if further action is required to reduce arsenic levels.

Reducing arsenic levels in drinking water may involve water treatment methods such as activated alumina filtration, reverse osmosis, or ion exchange technologies. Implementing these types of treatments depends on factors like the water source, the concentration of arsenic, and the presence of other contaminants. The National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) provides a list of certified treatment devices for removing arsenic from drinking water, which can be helpful in selecting the most appropriate option.

In addition to monitoring arsenic in drinking water, it is essential to be aware that arsenic exposure can also occur through the consumption of contaminated food products, such as seafood, shellfish, and certain vegetables. Organic arsenic compounds are generally considered less toxic than inorganic forms, but the overall risk will depend on the specific compounds and the duration of exposure. Keeping a balanced diet, maintaining water quality standards, and being vigilant about potential sources of arsenic exposure are essential steps in minimizing the health risks associated with this toxic element.

How to Remove Arsenic from Drinking Water

Reverse Osmosis

Reverse Osmosis (RO) is a popular and effective method for removing arsenic from drinking water. It works by forcing water through a semipermeable membrane, which separates the contaminants from the water. RO systems are usually installed under the sink and can be used in both public water systems and private wells. However, RO systems may have higher upfront costs and require periodic maintenance.

Activated Alumina

Activated alumina is a highly porous form of aluminum oxide that efficiently adsorbs arsenic. This method is suitable for both public water systems and private wells. It involves passing water through a column of activated alumina, which attracts and binds with arsenic, removing it from the water. Activated alumina is a relatively low-cost option with good efficacy, but its efficiency may decrease over time as the alumina becomes saturated.


Distillation is a process that involves boiling water and condensing the resulting steam. This method effectively removes arsenic as the steam does not carry the dissolved arsenic with it. Distillation can be used for both public water systems and private wells but may have higher energy costs and take longer than other methods. It is important to note that the process doesn’t remove all volatile organic compounds from the water, which may require additional treatment for compliance with water quality standards.

Ion Exchange

Ion exchange is a water treatment process that involves the exchange of ions between the water and a resin material. This method is effective at removing arsenic from drinking water and can be used in both public water systems and private wells. Ion exchange systems are typically installed at the point of entry to treat the entire water supply. However, this method may have higher upfront costs, and the resin needs to be regenerated periodically, adding to maintenance costs.


Granular Ferric Oxide (GFO) and Granular Ferric Hydroxide (GFH) are types of iron-based media that effectively adsorb arsenic from water. These materials are often used in water treatment plants and can also be utilized in private wells. GFO and GFH can be installed in point-of-entry systems, treating the entire household water supply. GFO/GFH systems typically have low to moderate costs, but like activated alumina, the efficiency may decrease over time as the media becomes saturated with arsenic.

When considering arsenic removal options, costs, compliance with water quality standards, and the type of water source (public water system or private well) should be taken into account. No single method is perfect, and each has its own advantages and disadvantages in terms of effectiveness, cost, and maintenance requirements.

How Does Arsenic Get into Drinking Water

Arsenic is a naturally occurring chemical element that is widely found in the Earth’s crust. It can be found in various forms, such as a trace component in rocks and sediments, and in different environmental settings, including water, air, and soil. The presence of arsenic in drinking water has raised significant concerns worldwide, and its sources can be traced to both natural and human activities.

In its natural state, arsenic can leach into groundwater systems under particular geochemical conditions. The exact process depends on the chemical form of the arsenic and biogeochemical processes occurring in the aquifer. When arsenic is in a soluble form, it can dissolve in water and enter the groundwater system, becoming part of the drinking water supply. On the other hand, if it is not soluble, arsenic will precipitate and remain in the solid phase of the groundwater system, constituting part of the soil.

Human activities also contribute to the presence of arsenic in drinking water. The use of pesticides and fertilizers containing arsenic can lead to the contamination of soil and water sources. Over time, these chemicals can seep into the groundwater, polluting drinking water supplies. Furthermore, mining operations can also release arsenic into the environment. Processes like ore extraction and metal smelting produce waste byproducts that contain arsenic, which, if not managed correctly, can contaminate the soil and ultimately reach the water table.

Arsenic can also be found in some types of food products, particularly rice and rice-based products. Rice is known to be particularly susceptible to accumulating arsenic due to its ability to take up and store the element from the water it grows in. This can lead to traces of arsenic ending up in the harvested rice, potentially posing risks to those who consume it.

In conclusion, arsenic can find its way into drinking water through various natural processes and human activities. The element’s presence in the environment, combined with factors such as soil contamination, pesticide use, mining activities, and certain food products, can all contribute to increasing the levels of arsenic in drinking water systems. It is crucial to monitor and regulate the presence of arsenic in water supplies to ensure public health and safety.

Effects of Arsenic on the Human Body

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that can be found in varying levels in water, air, and soil. Ingesting high levels of arsenic, particularly through drinking water, can lead to a range of health problems with both short-term and long-term consequences.

The World Health Organization has identified several health risks associated with long-term exposure to arsenic. One of the primary concerns is the development of cancer. Arsenic is a well-established carcinogen, and prolonged exposure can contribute to cancers of the skin, bladder, and lungs. Additionally, individuals exposed to arsenic may experience skin lesions as a direct result of the toxicity.

Alongside these risks, arsenic has also been linked to cardiovascular disease and diabetes. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), arsenic in drinking water can contribute to the development of these diseases by disrupting essential systems in the body. It can lead to peripheral vascular disease and an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.

The nervous system is not immune to the toxic effects of arsenic. U.S. Geological Survey states that high levels of arsenic exposure have been connected with neurological disorders and cognitive impairments. Children exposed to arsenic during their early years may experience significant developmental setbacks, whereas young adults exposed to arsenic can be at an increased risk of death.

In summary, arsenic can have a severe impact on various systems and organs within the human body. Long-term exposure to this toxic element can lead to serious health conditions such as cancer, skin lesions, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and neurological issues. Due to these dangers, it is crucial to monitor and regulate arsenic levels in drinking water and other sources of exposure to minimize the potential harm to public health.


Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that can be found in groundwater and drinking water supplies. Its inorganic form is highly toxic and poses a significant threat to public health when present in contaminated water used for drinking, food preparation, and the irrigation of food crops. Long-term exposure to arsenic in drinking water has been linked to serious health effects, including cancer and non-cancerous ailments such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Addressing the issue of arsenic contamination in water supplies requires an understanding of both the natural processes that lead to its presence and the efforts taken to mitigate its impact on populations. Researchers and health officials must work together to not only assess the presence of arsenic in water sources, but also to devise effective strategies for removing it and ensuring access to safe drinking water for all.

In conclusion, the presence of arsenic in drinking water is a significant public health concern that demands attention and action from scientists, governments, and communities. By raising awareness about the dangers of arsenic contamination and working together to develop effective solutions, we can protect the health of millions of people around the world who are affected by this toxic element in their water supplies.

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