After virtually eliminating arsenic as a useful tool for homicide, science now faces challenges in doing the same for natural sources of this fabled old “inheritance powder” that contaminates water supplies and food, threatening more than 35 million people worldwide.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a popular book documenting arsenic’s horrific history as a poison highlighted that situation at a far-ranging symposium on arsenic here today during the 245th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific society. The following topics were among the two dozen presentations at the “Arsenic Contamination in Food and Water” symposium (abstracts appear below):
- Poisoner’s cupboard: The long (and sometimes homicidal) history of arsenic in everyday life.
- Arsenic in rice and rice products.
- Remediation of arsenic contamination of groundwater in Asia and USA.
- Development of a method for assessing perinatal exposures to heavy metals using residual dried blood spots from newborn screening programs.
- Pick your poison? Arsenic in harvested country foods, edible mushrooms and wine from Canada.
- Low, slow and Next Gen impact: Arsenic, human health and cancer risks.
“Because of its sinister, homicidal uses, arsenic — a naturally occurring element found in the Earth’s crust — became world-renowned as the ‘inheritance powder,’” explained Deborah Blum, the plenary speaker for the symposium. “What made arsenic such a good homicidal poison is the same thing that makes it dangerous in environmental exposures — it gives no warning,” said Blum, who is at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It’s mostly tasteless, it’s odorless, and it’s colorless. The symptoms of arsenic poisoning, especially if given in small doses over a long time, mimic those of natural diseases, so for a long time, people got away with it. Arsenic became one of the great historical poisons in human history.”
Blum described how arsenic remained largely the poisoner’s first choice until the 19th century, when manufacturers started using it in pesticides, candies, jewelry and even in wallpaper to give it a deep green color. It even found uses in patent remedies and as an additive in certain foods. It was all over the place and easy for anyone to get.
“At the start of the 19th century, scientists started realizing that they had to put a stop to this free-wheeling, murderous situation,” she explained. “That’s when the big revolution happened — scientists finally figured out how to detect arsenic in the body. Slowly, people realized they couldn’t easily get away with it anymore, and arsenic became more difficult to obtain — manufacturers stopped adding it to common household products.”
Other speakers in the symposium focused on the ongoing problem of arsenic contamination in the 21st century. Arsenic occurs naturally in elevated concentrations in the soil in certain areas of the world. It sometimes leaches into drinking water supplies and food. Recent reports in the news media have drawn attention to its presence in apple juice and rice, and in groundwater in Bangladesh and Chile.