A look at sources of arsenic from food, water, and soils, and what you can do about it
What is Arsenic and how does it affect our bodies?
Arsenic exposure contributes significantly to increased risks of cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease (1). And according to a study I posted recently to my Facebook page, it can also impact fetal growth. Arsenic is toxic to cells and has no function in the human body. It is difficult to detect because it is both odorless and flavorless. The ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry) classifies metals according to their toxicity, and considers arsenic (as well as mercury, lead and cadmium) to be the most frequently problematic metals for human health. Arsenic (along with mercury, thallium, and lead) all have particularly harmful effects on the mitochondria in our nerve cells. The elements arsenic, thallium, aluminum, and tin, when elevated, often cause chronic fatigue and predispose patients with chronic fatigue or Lyme’s disease to persistent infections.
In north-central Sri Lanka, kidney disease is occurring with increasing frequency primarily among rice farmers, and is likely caused by exposure to pesticides and fertilizers. Testing has shown high exposure to arsenic and cadmium.
Many times in the course of my consultations I’ve seen hair mineral tests that show significant malabsorption issues for nutritional minerals (things like magnesium, calcium, zinc, potassium, selenium, etc.) when arsenic and other toxic heavy metals are elevated. If the client has significant amounts of arsenic and/or aluminum, this harms the function of the mineral transporters in the gut, as well as amino acid transporters. Therefore, my mineral status is often poor in such cases, and amino acid status and therefore protein status will be significantly impaired as well.
Getting rid of the arsenic (as well as lead, thallium, aluminum and mercury) from our bodies truly changes lives.
Research indicates that arsenic does not directly interact with DNA. Instead, the effects of arsenic occur through indirect alteration of gene expression via disruption of DNA methylation, inhibition of DNA repair, oxidative stress, or altered modulation of signal transduction pathways. Thus, toxicity of arsenate compounds (particularly at low doses) is apparently dependent on exposure to other toxic cofactors such as exposure to tobacco smoke, malnutrition, ultraviolet light exposure, selenium deficiency, reduced animal protein intake, marginal calcium status, and folate deficiency (2).
What are the common sources of Arsenic?
Arsenic occurs naturally in some rocks and soils, resulting in ground water contamination. Regions in Bangladesh and West Bengal have very high arsenic levels in rock strata below topsoil. This arsenic gets into the well water. Sometimes, digging deeper wells to access an aquifer uncontaminated by arsenic is a viable, though expensive option. This is also an issue in Taiwan, Southern Argentina, Chile, and the state of New Hampshire, among other areas. Higher levels of arsenic are also found in places with industrial emissions and smog. Many pesticides contain arsenic, and result in contamination of water and entry into the food-chain. Government subsidies have made pesticides and fertilizers very cheap in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Many pesticides contain arsenic, and over-use of these products has been common, leading to increased exposure to arsenic.
Food sources of arsenic can include apple and grape juice, as well as rice grown in a number of regions. I agree with Chris Kresser that white rice is generally safer in regards to arsenic content than brown rice. But more significantly, many of us have gradually accumulated arsenic simply by eating ordinary chicken (and some other meats) for many years. Recent studies reporting the presence of arsenic residues in chicken have led to the voluntary stoppage of the sale (in the United States) of the most commonly used organoarsenical, roxarsone (3). Currently, it appears that the last remaining organoarsenical, nitarsone (A.K.A., Histostat), was slated to be discontinued by the end of 2015.
However, these organoarsenical products are still being produced and exported to other countries. Chicken farmers in the U.S. were allowed by the FDA to use these organoarsenical products as antibiotic agents to promote the growth of bigger, fatter birds with a more pinkish hue to the meat (which is apparently considered desirable by consumers). Unfortunately arsenic gets into the birds’ tissue and flesh. If you consumed non-organic chicken, you likely accumulated some arsenic. Poultry manure contaminated with arsenic can contribute to an increase in the concentration of arsenic in the environment. Roxarsone and other organoarsenicals are transferred at a high rate from poultry litter that is subjected to composting and land application. This may relate to the levels of arsenic found in rice grown in certain regions. The annual emission of roxarsone from poultry operations in the United States has been estimated at 900,000 kg per year (4).
As a result, alternative waste management practices are currently being implemented, including incineration and pelletization of waste. However, organic arsenicals used in poultry feed are converted to inorganic arsenicals in poultry waste, limiting the feasibility of waste management alternatives. The presence of inorganic arsenic in incinerator ash and pelletized waste sold as fertilizer creates opportunities for population exposures that did not previously exist. The removal of arsenic from animal feed is a critical step toward safe poultry waste management (5).
How can we test for and remove Arsenic from our bodies?
I typically begin by running a hair mineral test and calculating some specific mineral ratios to determine the extent to which arsenic is affecting one’s health. I also assess for nutritional elements that are deficient, and put the client on an appropriate supplementation program to correct these deficiencies. Minerals that are protective against arsenic, or compete for binding sites and transportation/storage in the body include molybdenum, selenium, and phosphorus.
A high priority is to determine the route of intake into the body, and to correct that. Getting a water test done if you drink from a well is an excellent idea.
Keep in mind though, that transporters in our bodies that move metals and minerals from blood to hair and other tissues are susceptible to faulty genes. So we might only see a small representation of something like arsenic showing up in a hair mineral test. But this is not representative of the total amount stored in the rest of the body – it’s a case of the metal or mineral being unable to “jump the hurdle,” so to speak, and get from the bloodstream to those cells.
Arsenic is difficult to get rid of and people vary in their capacity to eliminate it. A key enzyme for the transportation and detoxification of arsenic is Arsenite methyltransferase, which is coded by the AS3MT gene. AS3MT requires the presence of a compound produced in the body called SAM-e, as well as glutathione (an important anti-oxidant) and the mineral molybdenum to function properly. There are also lots of snp’s (“snips” – single nucleotide polymorphisms; a sort of genetic variation that occurs in more than 1% of the population) in the AS3MT enzyme that can prevent it’s proper function in detoxing arsenic. Furthermore, if you have significant storage of mercury in addition to arsenic, mercury will inhibit the function of this enzyme. So it then becomes increasingly difficult to get rid of each of these metals. Nasty stuff, yes?
What is the Treatment Method for Elimination of Arsenic?
If your body is burdened by significant levels of metals that tend to get stored in the bones (including arsenic, lead, aluminum, and cadmium) it typically will take a full 2 to 2.5 years to get rid of them, whereas things like nickel, mercury, and beryllium can usually be significantly reduced within 12 months. Obviously the higher the levels, the longer it’s going to take to get rid of them. As mentioned above, it is more difficult to rid the body of these metals if you have elevated levels of 2 or more different toxic elements (i.e., arsenic and mercury simultaneously).
In my consultations I typically start with a hair mineral analysis to get a view of overall nutritional and toxic metal levels and interrelationships in the client. I follow this up with dietary and supplement recommendations tailored to the mineral test results and patient’s symptoms. The adjustment of nutritional mineral levels is important because some of these elements are protective against toxic elements such as arsenic and often compete for binding sites and transport channels.
In a number of cases, I use hair mineral analysis as the initial screening tool, and the results of that test will point me to a few specific blood tests to order for the patient, giving more detailed information or corroboration of the hair analysis results.
The next step (often begun concurrently with nutritional element supplementation) is to work on chelation or detoxification of the heavy metals. There are several tiers of approaches to accomplishing this, ranging in strength from supplements like modified citrus pectin, to bitter, draining herbs, to liposomal glutathione and EDTA. I choose the exact protocol for a client based on how elevated the levels of toxic elements are, how many metals are elevated, and the severity of symptoms being experienced by the patient. In some cases, all that’s needed is nutritional mineral supplementation and some herbal supplements that help to clear and optimize the function of our filter organs, namely the liver and kidneys.
Finally, it’s useful to retest at intervals to gauge progress in elimination of the burden of metals. Monitoring changes in symptoms, whether it’s reduced frequency and intensity of migraine headaches, or improved memory or mood, or increased energy levels, is also important for assessing progress.
Conclusions and where to go from here
To conclude, I welcome you to contact me with any specific questions pertaining to arsenic, your health and detoxification. When you’re working on re-balancing you’re body’s nutritional and detoxification status, do your best to remain patient with yourself and the process – it took some time to accumulate these heavy metals, and it’s important not to get too frustrated with the time it takes to rid your body of these nasty, unwelcome elements!