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Published on May 18, 2013
Most people have heard of arsenic due to its potential use as a poison and some have even suggested exposure to arsenic was the cause of Napoleon Bonaparte's death.
Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that is widely distributed in the earth's crust and people can be exposed to it through air, water and food.
Arsenic combines with other elements such as oxygen, chlorine and sulfur to form inorganic arsenic compounds. Exposure to higher-than-average levels of arsenic occurs mainly in workplaces, near hazardous waste sites and areas with high levels naturally occurring in soil, rocks and water.
Arsenic can enter drinking water supplies from natural deposits in the earth or from agricultural and industrial practices. A large percentage of industrial arsenic in the U.S. has come from its use as a wood preservative, but arsenic has also been used in paints, dyes, metals, drugs, soaps and semi-conductors.
Agricultural applications, mining and smelting can all contribute to arsenic releases into the environment. Inorganic arsenic exposure of humans, by the inhalation route, has been shown to be strongly associated with lung cancer, while ingestion of inorganic arsenic by humans has been linked to a form of skin cancer and also to bladder, liver and lung cancer. At high levels, inorganic arsenic can cause death. Exposure to lower levels for a long period of time can cause a discoloration of the skin and the appearance of small corns or warts.
The EPA has classified inorganic arsenic as a human carcinogen and has set limits on the amount of arsenic that industrial sources can release into the environment. There are also permissible exposure limits for workers.