Results of the arsenic content analysis of differ­ent water and food sam­ples

Thursday, October 8, 2015


Author: Tamás János Szigeti


1. Summary

During its development, mankind has experienced incredible technical and scientific development over the last several hundred years. A physical and chemical burden never before seen has been imposed on the living environment of people by industrialization and the ever increasing use of chemicals. This burden resulted in the increasing contamination of the environment, including aquiferous environmental elements, and so mankind has to consider, when consuming food, the toxic effects of many compounds that can harm one’s health.


In addition to contamination caused by industrial activities, undesirable substances can enter the food chain from natural sources as well. One of these elements, entering our bodies with drinking water and solid foods, is arsenic which is present in our environment bound in both organic and inorganic compounds. In this paper, the answer is sought to the question whether, knowing the harmful effects of arsenic on people’s health, the radical change in limit value by the European Union which modified the allowable arsenic content of drinking water from 50 μg/L to 10 μg/L seems justified.


According to the measurement results of the laboratory of the Food Safety Business Unit of WESSLING Hungary Kft., and also based on all other data studied, it can be stated with high certainty that with the maximum allowed value of 50 μg/L that was in effect for dinking waters in Hungary until the end of 2013, the Hungarian population did not have to be afraid of health damages caused by the toxic effect of arsenic. Among the literature material available to me, I found a recently published paper, dealing in detail with the sources and extent of the arsenic load of Hungarian people. Conclusions of the authors also support the opinion that the domestic arsenic load, although not negligible, is not expected to cause observable health deterioration for the citizens of Hungary.


2. Introduction

In the fourht century BC, Aristotle already knew certain colored ores of arsenic. One of the ores was nemad by his student, Teophrastus of Eresus, archenicum-nak [1].

Avicenna (Ibn-Sīnā, Abu Ali al-Husain ibn Abdallah ibn Sina) Persian physicist, philosopher and scientist, one of the most significant thinkers of the Islamic Golden Age, one of the most famous Islamic doctors (980-1037) used the extremely toxic componds of arsenic, such as white arsenic (As2O3), yellow arsenic (As2S3) (orpiment?) and red arsenic (AsS and As2S2) (realgar, As4S4?) for medicinal purposes [2]. The first writing about elemental arsenic was published in the scientific literature by the catholic bishop and alchemist Albertus Magnus, and so this medieval scientist is credited with the discovery of elemental arsenic by science [3].  Its name supposedly comes from the Arabic word al-zarnīkh, derived from the Persian zarnik, meaning gold-colored. It is related to the Greek word αρσενικον [arsenikon], which designates a masculine, strong charateristic. Presumably it was this Greek word that eventually evolved into the Latin-sounding arsenicum[4].


Arsenic is an element that is present almost everywhere in the Earth’s crust, usually in the form of inorganic compounds. Most organic and inorganic arsenic compounds are white colored or colorless, odorless substances, therefore, they cannot be detected in foods by organoleptic methods. Its average concentration in soils is 3 to 4 μg/kg, while in surface and groundwaters it is 1 μg/L. In certain contaminated areas, concentrations as high as 40 μg/kg in soil and 1000 μg/L in water have been observed. According to US data, the arsenic contamination of foods is usually in the 20 to 140 μg/kg range. Acute poisoning symptoms to be expected when consuming foods containing inorganic arsenic compounds in concentrations higher than 300 μg/L or 300 μg/kg. Here is a piece of information for comparison’s sake: the arsenic concentration of drinking water in West Bengal and Bangladesh can reach 800 μg/L [5]. Typical symptoms of arsenic piosoning are gastrointestinal complaints, stomach ache, nausea, vomiting. In the meantime, destruction of red blood cells start and the limbs become numb. Prolonged exposure to smaller doses of arsenic results in characteristic skin lesions, and the risk of kidney, bladder and lung cancer increases significantly. Inorganic arsenic was declared a human carcinogen by IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) and EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) [6]. It follows from the above that our foods have to be strictly supervised in terms of their arsenic contamination. Toxicological significance is emphasized by the risk assessment prepared by the US-based ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry) analyzing environmental effects, evaluating the hazardousness of 255 substances. It is taken into consideration how many people are affected by the given element or compound, and to what extent its concentration exceeds the limit value. In the last fuve years, the first item on the list has been arsenic. In terms of hazardousness, arsenic was foolwed by lead, and then by mercury. Cadmium was seventh on the list [7].

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