Environmental health criteria for arsenic and arsenic compounds

C. Abernathy*, D. Chakraborti, J. S. Edmonds, H. Gibb, P. Hoet, C. Hopenhayn-Rich, P. D. Howe, L. Järup, A. A. Meharg, M. R. Moore, J. C. Ng, A. Nishikawa, L. Pyy, M. Sim, J. Stauber, M. Vahter, P. Imray, L. Tomaska, D. Hughes, A. AitioG. Becking, K. Buckett, P. Callan, M. F. Hughes, E. M. Kenyon, D. R. Lewis, M. Younes

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)


1.1 Properties and analytical procedures: Arsenic is a metalloid widely distributed in the earth's crust and present at an average concentration of 2 mg/kg. It occurs in trace quantities in all rock, soil, water and air. Arsenic can exist in four valency states: -3, 0, +3 and +5. Under reducing conditions, arsenite (As(III)) is the dominant form; arsenate (As(V)) is generally the stable form in oxygenated environments. Elemental arsenic is not soluble in water. Arsenic salts exhibit a wide range of solubilities depending on pH and the ionic environment. There is a variety of instrumental techniques for the determination of arsenic. These include AAS, AFS, ICP-AES, ICP-MS and voltammetry. Some of these (e.g. ICP-MS) can serve as element-specific detectors when coupled to chromatographic separation techniques (e.g. HPLC and GC). These so-called "hyphenated" methods are used for determining individual arsenic species. Additional sensitivity for a limited range of arsenic compounds can often be achieved by the use of hydride generation techniques. A test kit based on the colour reaction of arsine with mercuric bromide is currently used for groundwater testing in Bangladesh and has a detection limit of 50-100 gg/litre under field conditions. 1.2 Sources and occurrence of arsenic in the environment: Arsenic is present in more than 200 mineral species, the most common of which is arsenopyrite. It has been estimated that about one-third of the atmospheric flux of arsenic is of natural origin. Volcanic action is the most important natural source of arsenic, followed by low-temperature volatilization. Inorganic arsenic of geological origin is found in groundwater used as drinking-water in several parts of the world, for example Bangladesh. Organic arsenic compounds such as arsenobetaine, arseno-choline, tetramethylarsonium salts, arsenosugars and arsenic-containing lipids are mainly found in marine organisms although some of these compounds have also been found in terrestrial species. Elemental arsenic is produced by reduction of arsenic trioxide (As2O3) with charcoal. AS2O3 is produced as a by-product of metal smelting operations. It has been estimated that 70% of the world arsenic production is used in timber treatment as copper chrome arsenate (CCA), 22% in agricultural chemicals, and the remainder in glass, pharmaceuticals and non-ferrous alloys. Mining, smelting of non-ferrous metals and burning of fossil fuels are the major industrial processes that contribute to anthropogenic arsenic contamination of air, water and soil. Historically, use of arsenic-containing pesticides has left large tracts of agricultural land contaminated. The use of arsenic in the preservation of timber has also led to contamination of the environment. 1.3 Environmental transport and distribution: Arsenic is emitted into the atmosphere by high-temperature processes such as coal-fired power generation plants, burning vegetation and volcanism. Natural low-temperature biomethylation and reduction to arsines also releases arsenic into the atmosphere. Arsenic is released into the atmosphere primarily as As2O3 and exists mainly adsorbed on particulate matter. These particles are dispersed by the wind and are returned to the earth by wet or dry deposition. Arsines released from microbial sources in soils or sediments undergo oxidation in the air, reconverting the arsenic to non-volatile forms, which settle back to the ground. Dissolved forms of arsenic in the water column include arsenate, arsenite, methylarsonic acid (MMA) and dimethylarsinic acid (DMA). In well-oxygenated water and sediments, nearly all arsenic is present in the thermodynamically more stable pentavalent state (arsenate). Some arsenite and arsenate species can interchange oxidation state depending on redox potential (Eh), pH and biological processes. Some arsenic species have an affinity for clay mineral surfaces and organic matter and this can affect their environmental behaviour. There is potential for arsenic release when there is fluctuation in Eh, pH, soluble arsenic concentration and sediment organic content. Weathered rock and soil may be transported by wind or water erosion. Many arsenic compounds tend to adsorb to soils, and leaching usually results in transportation over only short distances in soil. Three major modes of arsenic biotransformation have been found to occur in the environment: redox transformation between arsenite and arsenate, the reduction and methylation of arsenic, and the biosynthesis of organoarsenic compounds. There is biogeochemical cycling of compounds formed from these processes. 1.4 Environmental levels and human exposure: Mean total arsenic concentrations in air from remote and rural areas range from 0.02 to 4 ng/m3. Mean total arsenic concentrations in urban areas range from 3 to about 200 ng/m3; much higher concentrations (> 1000 ng/m3) have been measured in the vicinity of industrial sources, although in some areas this is decreasing because of pollution abatement measures. Concentrations of arsenic in open ocean seawater are typically 2 μg/litre. Arsenic is widely distributed in surface freshwaters, and concentrations in rivers and lakes are generally below 10 μg/litre, although individual samples may range up to 5 mg/litre near anthropogenic sources. Arsenic levels in groundwater average about 1-2 μg/litre except in areas with volcanic rock and sulfide mineral deposits where arsenic levels can range up to 3 mg/litre. Mean sediment arsenic concentrations range from 5 to 3000 mg/kg, with the higher levels occurring in areas of contamination. Background concentrations in soil range from 1 to 40 mg/kg, with mean values often around 5 mg/kg. Naturally elevated levels of arsenic in soils may be associated with geological substrata such as sulfide ores. Anthropogenically contaminated soils can have concentrations of arsenic up to several grams per 100 ml. Marine organisms normally contain arsenic residues ranging from < 1 to more than 100 mg/kg, predominantly as organic arsenic species such as arsenosugars (macroalgae) and arsenobetaine (invertebrates and fish). Bioaccumulation of organic arsenic compounds, after their biogenesis from inorganic forms, occurs in aquatic organisms. Bioconcentration factors (BCFs) in freshwater invertebrates and fish for arsenic compounds are lower than for marine organisms. Biomagnification in aquatic food chains has not been observed. Background arsenic concentrations in freshwater and terrestrial biota are usually less than 1 mg/kg (fresh weight). Terrestrial plants may accumulate arsenic by root uptake from the soil or by adsorption of airborne arsenic deposited on the leaves. Arsenic levels are higher in biota collected near anthropogenic sources or in areas with geothermal activity. Some species accumulate substantial levels, with mean concentrations of up to 3000 mg/kg at arsenical mine sites. Non-occupational human exposure to arsenic in the environment is primarily through the ingestion of food and water. Of these, food is generally the principal contributor to the daily intake of total arsenic. In some areas arsenic in drinking-water is a significant source of exposure to inorganic arsenic. In these cases, arsenic in drinking-water often constitutes the principal contributor to the daily arsenic intake. Contaminated soils such as mine tailings are also a potential source of arsenic exposure. The daily intake of total arsenic from food and beverages is generally between 20 and 300 gg/day. Limited data indicate that approximately 25% of the arsenic present in food is inorganic, but this depends highly on the type of food ingested. Inorganic arsenic levels in fish and shellfish are low (< 1%). Foodstuffs such as meat, poultry, dairy products and cereals have higher levels of inorganic arsenic. Pulmonary exposure may contribute up to approximately 10 μg/day in a smoker and about 1 μg/day in a non-smoker, and more in polluted areas. The concentration of metabolites of inorganic arsenic in urine (inorganic arsenic, MMA and DMA) reflects the absorbed dose of inorganic arsenic on an individual level. Generally, it ranges from 5 to 20 μg As/litre, but may even exceed 1000 μg/litre. In workplaces with up-to-date occupational hygiene practices, exposure generally does not exceed 10 μg/m3 (8-h time-weighted average [TWA]). However, in some places workroom atmospheric arsenic concentrations as high as several milligrams per cubic metre have been reported. 1.5 Kinetics and metabolism: Absorption of arsenic in inhaled airborne particles is highly dependent on the solubility and the size of particles. Both pentavalent and trivalent soluble arsenic compounds are rapidly and extensively absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract. In many species arsenic metabolism is characterized by two main types of reactions: (1) reduction reactions of pentavalent to trivalent arsenic, and (2) oxidative methylation reactions in which trivalent forms of arsenic are sequentially methylated to form mono-, di- and trimethylated products using S-adenosyl methionine (SAM) as the methyl donor and glutathione (GSH) as an essential co-factor.

Original languageEnglish
JournalEnvironmental Health Criteria
Issue number224
Publication statusPublished - 01 Dec 2001
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis


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