Day 18: Arsenic

A 2007 study concluded that over 137 Million people in more than 70 countries suffer from arsenic poisoning in drinking water.  It can cause headaches, confusion, severe diarrhea and drowsiness in mild cases, but at high concentrations will cause committing, blood in the urine, cramping muscles, hair loss, & stomach pain.  In the worst cases it will lead to comas that result in death.  It is an abundant substance in the earth’s crust, and in areas with arsenic-rich rocks, it is often found in groundwater.  It is also found in areas with industrial and mining activities.  Current EPA & WHO guidelines require that drinking water contain no more than 10 parts per billion of arsenic.

In contrast to many other contaminants, Arsenic has a long history as both a medicine and poison.  Because the symptoms of arsenic poisoning were not well defined, it proved a discreet weapon in bringing about the deaths of many powerful figures in history – it is even suspected that Napoleon himself was such a victim, as forensic tests of his hair, and accounts in his diaries seem to indicate.  Arsenic has been used as a cosmetic, which in the Victorian era was used to give women a pale complexion to show they spent little time in the sun.  To this day it remains in use in medicine – in fact the FDA recently approved it for use in treating leukemia.

Yet in India, Bangladesh, and regions of the world high in arsenic deposits, its consumption in drinking water is the cause of a major public health epidemic.  Much of Bangladesh’s problems began when it undertook a nation-wide effort to dig wells that would allow citizens to avoid using surface water contaminated with bacteria.  It is currently estimated that over 57 million people in Bangladesh are drinking arsenic-contaminated water.
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