A new study out of Johns Hopkins has found that, even at low levels, exposure to the heavy metal arsenic may lead to a fourfold increase in the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. This could be a problem for you if you’re drinking water directly from the tap because the public water supply in most locals contains trace amounts of arsenic. The study, out of Johns Hopkins, measured the arsenic content in the urine of nearly 800 individuals and found a strong association between high arsenic content and the presence of the diabetes. In fact, arsenic in the urine is about equal to obesity as a diabetes risk factor.
When the movie Arsenic and Old Lace portrayed two old spinsters plotting to use arsenic to commit murder back in 1944, the stuff became famous as a poison. (Actually, it was isolated back in the 13th century and used so widely for assassination throughout history that it became known as the “Poison of Kings.”) In addition to its efficacy as a murder weapon, studies show that arsenic can trigger cancers of the skin, liver, lung, kidney, and bladder, as well as lead to cardiovascular disease. In other words, it’s nasty stuff. As for diabetes, this is not the first study to implicate arsenic. Previous studies have also found the same connection, but at much higher levels than was the case with the most recent study. Until now, the accepted wisdom was that arsenic caused no problems unless you had significant exposure to it. That wisdom no longer appears so wise. (Note: organic arsenic in seafood isn’t considered a risk factor — only inorganic arsenic is problematic.)
So how does arsenic end up in ground water? First, it occurs naturally in rocks and soil. Add to that the fact that industry has had a love affair with the stuff because of its effectiveness as a pesticide, herbicide, and metal alloy additive. Until 2003, virtually all pressure-treated wood sold in the US contained arsenic (think termites…and infants gnawing on wood) , and it’s still used in semiconductor fabrication, bronze and copper work, animal feed, and chemotherapy compounds. And so, wherever there’s industrial runoff or high concentrations of inorganic arsenic in the ground, traces of arsenic seep into the water supply.
Of course, government regulates water safety, and if you’ve been told you have good water, that means that the arsenic content is less than 10 parts per billion — at least in the United States. But this new study tells us that even at those levels, the risk of diabetes increases (and you can bet so does the risk of arsenic-linked cancer). According to an article in USA Today, 10 parts per billion is, “the equivalent of a few drops of ink in an Olympic-size pool.” In countries such as Taiwan and Bangladesh, the water typically contains over 100 parts per billion — an entire fountain pen’s worth. Even in the US, scientists estimate that 13 million people rely on public water that exceeds the maximum limits. That’s not counting those who drink well water that’s typically high in arsenic content — and apparently, wells in the Southwest US have a particular problem with arsenic.
Unfortunately, we can assume that the arsenic issue is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of water safety. The problem is that arsenic is just one toxic element floating around in water that’s deemed safe by our regulatory agencies. So-called “good water” still contains scores of toxic substances — though in minute amounts. The EPA’s standards for public water allow for trace elements of lead, chlorine, copper, fluoride, radon, MTBEs (fuel oxygenators), disinfectant byproducts, inorganic chemicals such as barium and cyanide, pharmaceutical drug residues, and dozens of organic chemicals such as styrene and chlorobenzene. The health effects associated with these substances include cancer, liver damage, cataracts, kidney changes, reproductive problems, nervous system damage, blood problems — and a host of other life-threatening health issues.
We’re told not to worry, that these elements occur in such tiny concentrations that they don’t pose a risk, but the arsenic study proves that the supposedly safe level may not be so safe, after all. (Note that up until 2002, the allowable arsenic level was five times the current level, which, as noted above, now has been proven unsafe.) While municipal water departments do a great job of preventing the spread of major diseases such as cholera, they leave plenty of toxins in our water to kill us over the long haul.
The moral is that if you’ve been drinking tap water, you probably want to rethink it. If you do use filtered water, make sure your filter traps heavy metals such as arsenic (most don’t). Or use steam distilled water. Be aware that if you drink water in restaurants, it’s probably coming from the tap unless you specifically order it filtered. And remember that bottled water might be just as pernicious. You might be better off kicking back with a glass of cabernet. (Scratch that. Arsenic levels in wine can often reach 100 ppb or more.)
PS: Heck, you might want to consider regular heavy metal detoxing as a personal safety net.
PPS: And don’t forget about the chicken you eat. I’ll bet my reference above to arsenic in animal feed already slipped your mind, didn’t it? Big mistake.