No snickers: Arsenic natural, but deadly


When I wear a polka-dot tie, I think of one person: Cary Grant. Cary talked kind of– well, peculiar– but he was a star. Even The Flintstones had Cary Granite as a guest. Remember when he starred in North By Northwest and was chased down by an airplane while wearing a suit that never got crop-dusted? Or in Charade, when you couldn't tell if he was going to kiss or kill Audrey Hepburn? Cary was big, big, big! As Norma Desmond would say, "I am big! It's the pictures that got small."

Well, in Arsenic and Old Lace, Cary Grant had two very innocent co-stars: Aunties Abby and Martha Brewster. These two very nice ladies– well, nice on the surface– had an odd habit of poisoning lonely old men with arsenic. Ted Bundy, eat your heart out.

Arsenic is a natural element. (I love it when people complain that medicines aren't natural, but what they take is natural. I often respond, "Arsenic, hemlock, and cyanide are all natural. I'm blond, too– natural.") Acute high doses of arsenic are toxic and can be deadly within hours. Chronic low doses of arsenic might not be deadly, but can pose numerous problems over time– like how "Barney" has progressively gotten on everyone's nerves over the years, poor purple thing.

Arsenic is a heavy metal. (If there's a heavy metal band named Arsenic, their first song should be, "Poison Me, Poison You.") Arsenic is found naturally in the earth's crust compounded within many different ores. Arsenic gas (AsH3) is not as common.

Arsenic is found in a lot of things, actually: semiconductors, smelting, decorative glass-making, moonshine, pressure-treated wood, and– believe it or not– in some Asian remedies, homeopathic remedies, and herbals. Arsenic has been used in medication in the past to treat syphilis (boy, what a way to punish someone for having unprotected sex), parasitic infections, some skin conditions, and even a type of leukemia.

Arsenic can be found in soil and rocks, and can trickle into drinking water– gulp! No, wait, don't gulp! In Bangladesh and West Bengal, the water was contaminated with arsenic which led to more than one million cases of skin lesions, liver problems, and neurological damage.

Symptoms of acute poisoning by arsenic are nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea– sounds like food poisoning. This is followed by cardiac shock and respiratory distress that can lead to death. The brain becomes dazed by arsenic which can result in seizures, coma, and delirium– like me preparing for re-certification of my board license.

Chronic poisoning by arsenic can show up as skin lesions and nerve damage. Sensory problems can develop like feeling pins-and-needles, movement disorders, weakness, and mental problems. Some cancers, diabetes, liver problems, high blood pressure, and miscarriages have been associated with arsenic. (Egad! I wonder if I can also attribute my poor finances to arsenic?)

So how much arsenic constitutes "chronic poisoning"? In the US, drinking water contains an average of 2mcg of arsenic/liter. Seafood actually contains a lot of arsenic. Hey, even some chickens treated for parasites with arsenic can be ingested by humans– finger licking bad!

There's no real equation to measure arsenic poisoning, but in general ingesting >600mcg per kg body weight per day has resulted in death. A 24-hour urine test can reveal if a person is ingesting toxic levels of arsenic. A blood test isn't sensitive because evidence of the element usually pops up only within the first four hours of arsenic exposure.

I hope this article doesn't make everyone paranoid about arsenic. You should be paranoid about FoxNews instead. If arsenic were a laughing matter, I would become an African American comedian– Arsenic Hall. I'm sure you are dying with laughter over that one!

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