Arsenic Water Contamination: Symptoms, Testing, and Treatment


One of the advantages we have as a result of living in a modern society is the tools and technologies required to test our water for safety. There are a lot of natural and man-made contaminants that can cause serious problems when they get into your drinking water, and not all of them are detectible by color or taste.

The only way to be sure your drinking water is safe is by looking at municipal water quality reports, or by testing well water and other source not connected to municipal water yourself.

Unfortunately arsenic is one of the possible contaminants you should watch for, and there are a lot of possible sources of arsenic in our environment.

Arsenic is found in small concentrations in the air, water, soil, and even living organisms, including microorganisms sometimes found in the water.

Here’s what you need to know about arsenic in drinking water, including how it got there, warning signs to watch for, and how you can protect yourself and everyone in your home from arsenic in drinking water.

Arsenic water contamination

Arsenic In Water:

The first thing you need to know about arsenic in water is that there are two basic types of arsenic, organic and inorganic. No, we’re not talking about organic in the same way as your grocery store vegetables. Instead, organic arsenic is arsenic combined with carbon, that renders the arsenic inert.

That means that organic arsenic, which is common in marine wildlife, including the fish we eat, is non-toxic. In fact, seafood is the most common source of organic arsenic.

Inorganic arsenic is arsenic combined with any element other than carbon. This is the toxic form of arsenic, and is associated with both acute arsenic poisoning and increased cancer risk.

This form of arsenic is also common, and can be found in tobacco products, meat, and sometimes drinking water.

Typically when arsenic is found in water it’s in very small concentrations, which means that most people aren’t in danger from the naturally occurring concentration of arsenic in water. However, there is an EPA mandated limit on the amount of arsenic in water, and exposure to a higher concentration of arsenic can cause both short-term and long-term exposure risks.

Arsenic Poisoning

Arsenic poisoning happens anytime someone is exposed to higher levels of arsenic than their body can process without adverse effects. It’s not all spy movie poisonings. In fact, most cases of arsenic poisoning happen either because of high concentrations in drinking water, or through exposure at work.

Farm workers can actually be at high risk of arsenic poisoning because arsenic can be a component in many of the chemicals used to take care of a modern farm. People living near or working in industrial sites also have increased risk of excess arsenic exposure.

Most of the time when your body is exposed to a small amount of arsenic it’s excreted without causing harm. Your body can get rid of arsenic through urine and sweat.

When there is too much arsenic in your body it can cause a lot of problems because your body treats arsenic the same as phosphate. Phosphate is critical for nerve function, and arsenic doesn’t work the same way, which can lead to nerve damage, uncontrolled muscle contractions, and more complicated problems.

Arsenic poisoning can be treated by medical professionals, but severe cases can be fatal. Arsenic poisoning can also have lasting consequences even if you do receive treatment and survive the original poisoning.

Signs and Side Effects of Arsenic In Water

Arsenic is actually difficult to detect in water. It’s clear, odorless, tasteless, and does not cause mineral buildup or a change in water texture. That means that there’s no way for you to tell, looking at a glass of water from the tap, that there is arsenic in the water.

Arsenic in drinking water can cause a range of side effects, especially if you drink it for an extended period without realizing that something is wrong, and without the concentration of arsenic in your water decreasing.

In the short term, side effects of arsenic in water include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Gastrointestinal cramping/discomfort
  • Skin discoloration (over a longer period of time or at higher concentrations)

Long-term arsenic exposure can increase your risk for various cancers, even if it never causes acute poisoning. Known cancer risks include:

  • Lung cancers
  • Skin cancers
  • Kidney cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • And more.

Not all tap water contains any amount of arsenic. However, well water sources are more likely to contain arsenic than municipal water, and even municipal water can have arsenic at times, though the concentration rarely if ever exceeds safe limits. Know about Well Water Filters here.

Arsenic is present in at least some water in all 50 states in the United States. Canadian water tends to have lower concentrations and may not have any at all in places. However, where there is arsenic in Canadian water, the concentrations can sometimes be higher.

Arsenic Water Testing

The only way to determine if your water contains arsenic, and what concentrations of arsenic are present, is to get it tested. Municipal water sources are tested in the water processing plants. However, that doesn’t track whether arsenic is getting into the water supply somewhere between the processing plant and the consumer.

Fortunately, there are at-home testing kits for arsenic in water. DIY testing kits are generally less reliable than the professional versions, which is why many home users still use the professional test.

At home tests should still be sent to an EPA certified lab for testing to detect certain contaminants like arsenic or lead.

Safe Limit and Regulations

The accepted limit for arsenic in water is a miniscule amount. Generally, water is allowed to have up to 10 ppb (parts per billion) of arsenic. Concentrations higher than that aren’t allowed, and generally force water utilities to take immediate action.

It’s worth mentioning that the 10-ppb limit is an updated limit, and significantly lower than the previous 50 ppb limit.

Arsenic Water Solutions

Arsenic is a somewhat tricky contaminant to get rid of in water. A lot of people assume that boiling water would remove the contaminant. The truth is that boiling water eliminates microorganisms and can improve water safety, but it actually slightly increases the concentration of arsenic.

That’s because the heat doesn’t break down arsenic, while boiling water also creates steam, which pulls some of the water out of the remaining liquid, without removing any of the arsenic that was already there.

Chlorine is another ineffective option. Chlorine helps to sanitize water but it doesn’t eliminate inorganic contaminants like arsenic or lead.

There are two effective solutions to arsenic in drinking water. The first is a point of use filtration system that eliminates arsenic where it’s being used for drinking. Typically this is an under the sink filter for a specific drinking water tap.

The other option is a point of entry filter that provides filtration for your whole home’s water supply.

Regardless of which kind of water filter you use, you need to look specifically for a filter that eliminates arsenic. Not all filters do, and a simple mechanical water filter isn’t enough to get the job done.

Arsenic Water Filter Pitchers

There are effective arsenic water filter pitchers that can help eliminate arsenic from drinking water just before you use it. However, there are a few important drawbacks to this kind of system, especially if you rely entirely on the pitcher for a safe water supply.

The first is that water pitchers offer a limited supply of water. They aren’t as suitable for when you need a lot of filtered water all at once, like when you’re cooking or entertaining guests in your home.

The other issue is that most of these filters have a limited life, which means that you need to regularly replace the actual filter. Failure to replace the filter can mean more and more arsenic staying in your water, and some filters may actually allow the filtered contaminants to leech back into your water if they are used past their replacement date.

Filter replacement dates are also based off average use cases. So, you might have a filter that stops working long before the replacement date if there is a large number of contaminants in your water.


The most important thing you can do when it comes to arsenic in drinking water is to find out whether it’s there or not in the first place. Once you know you can decide on filtration options and make a game plan for how to deal with the contamination.

How you use water, and the concentration of arsenic and other contaminants in your water may influence your decisions about what filter option will work best for you. Some people even use combined filter, a whole-home filter plus a point of use filter, and sometimes even an additional pitcher. That kind of redundancy helps protect you even if one filter fails before its replacement date.

Remember, water quality reports at the processing plant aren’t necessarily the same quality as the water in your home. Home point of entry and point of use filters are the most effective solution to water contamination, you just have to choose the right system for your needs and the contaminants you want to remove.

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