In addition to being a class I carcinogen, even with low exposure, arsenic can impair our immune function and increase our risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
When people hear about arsenic they think it’s an acute poison, and in fact a tiny amount – a hundred milligrams, about a tenth the weight of a paper clip – could kill you in an hour. But there is also chronic arsenic poisoning, where even a dose 10,000 times as small can be harmful if exposed day in and day out for years as I discuss in my video The Effects of Too Much Arsenic in Your Diet. The main concern is cancer.
Arsenic is classified as the Class I carcinogen, which is the highest concentration and contains things known to cause cancer in humans. Other Class I carcinogens include asbestos, cigarette smoke, formaldehyde, plutonium, and processed meats (consumption of bacon, ham, hot dogs, deli meats, and the like). So, arsenic is pretty bad to say the least, and is implicated in tens of thousands – or even hundreds of thousands – of cancer cases worldwide each year.
Of course, cancer is our number two killer. What about heart disease, our leading cause of death? “Long-term exposure to low to moderate levels of arsenic has been linked to the incidence and mortality of cardiovascular disease,” meaning heart attacks and strokes.
Arsenic is also considered an immunotoxic, which means that it is toxic to our immune system. How do we know? There’s a virus called varicella that causes chickenpox – the first time we get it. Our immune system is able to knock it down, but not to eradicate it. The virus withdraws into our nerve cells, where it waits for our immune function to decline. And when it does, the virus comes back and causes a disease called shingles. We have all been exposed to the virus, but only about one in three of us gets shingles because our immune systems can keep it in check. However, the virus can slip out of our mouths with age or immunosuppression if, for example, we receive arsenic chemotherapy. Shingles is a common side effect because the arsenic drugs not only kill the cancer but also some of our immune cells. However, this is in high doses. Could even the low doses of arsenic, such as those found in our daily diet, affect our immune function? The researchers tested the arsenic levels in the urine of thousands of Americans and the level of antiviral antibodies and found that the more arsenic the subjects flowed through their bodies, the lower the body’s defenses.
And if you are pregnant, arsenic can be passed on to your baby, potentially increasing the risk of miscarriage, infant mortality and “affecting a child’s immune development and susceptibility to infection at a young age”. A New Hampshire study of infant infections related to prenatal arsenic exposure found that the more arsenic the mother was exposed to during pregnancy, the higher the baby’s risk of infection. “However, it is not known whether arsenic-induced epigenetic changes are intergenerational” – that is, whether changes in gene expression can affect the health of not only your own children but your grandchildren as well. Regardless, exposure to arsenic is not good for maternal health as it is linked to an increase in blood pressure.
Please wait. If arsenic suppresses the function of the immune system, would we be the silver lining fewer allergies, which is a kind of overreaction of the immune system? Apparently not. People with higher arsenic levels tend to have higher rates of food allergies, sleep as well, and feel less good. When asked how they would rate their health, those who reported “excellent” or “very good” tended to have lower arsenic levels than those who rated their general health as “good”, “fair” or “poor” , “Those tended to have higher arsenic levels.
What about diabetes You can see the results of two dozen population studies of arsenic exposure and confirmed diabetes at 4:07 a.m. in mine Video. Any result above one indicates an increased risk of diabetes, and any result below one indicates a lower risk. The results? “Our results support a connection between ingested arsenic and DM [diabetes] in humans. “However, population studies cannot prove cause and effect.” While it would be nice to demonstrate a cause and effect relationship … is it necessary? “
We know that arsenic is carcinogenic. We know it causes cancer. What else do we need to do to reduce our exposure?
Where is arsenic in our diet? See my videos Where does the arsenic in chicken come from? and Where does the arsenic in rice, mushrooms and wine come from?
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Michael Greger, MD
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