Element 33: Arsenic
Arsenic is element 33 on the periodic table and is in Group 15. Arsenic is obviously an extremely poisonous element; however, some people have found arsenic to have a restorative effect on them. Chemically, arsenic is a metalloid. Two common forms of arsenic are gray and yellow. (see Figure 1-A) Element 33 has an atomic weight of 74.9216 and the chemical symbol of As. It boils at 613?C, melts at 817?C, and has a density of 5.72. (see Figure 2-A) The element has been known for centuries and can be easily obtained from ores such as arsenopyrite (FeAsS), realgar (As2S2), orpiment (As2S3), and arsenic trioxide (As2O3). There are many uses for arsenic. Among them is in the manufacturing of glass to eliminate the air bubbles and the green color caused by contaminated iron compounds. Arsenic is also added to materials such as lead and copper alloys to increase the strength and better the corrosion resistance. Although it is well known that arsenic is often used in tales (both true and otherwise) as a killing agent, arsenic has been used as a curative as well. Before penicillin was introduced, arsenic played a significant role in the treatment of syphilis. Other good uses for element 33 are as insecticides and semiconductors. Gallium arsenide (GaAs) is a known semiconductor that is also used as a laser material. A good test for the detection of arsenic is the Marsh test, invented by James Marsh, an English chemist.
Arsenic is a rather notorious element. Mystery lovers know it as the poison and in the past, it has been one of the favored choices of criminals. (Bodin and Cheinisse 1970) Arsenic compounds have been known in the world since the 4th century BC, though it wasn’t described as an element until 1649. The ancient Romans knew of arsenic because it is a by-product of several ores they used: copper, zinc, tin, lead, and gold. (Schroeder 1974)
Arsenic has many uses throughout the world. China is the largest producer of arsenic metal and arsenic trioxide. The United States is the largest consumer of the product, according to 1996 statistics. In fact, the United States attributed to about two-thirds of the world’s demand. All of the arsenic required by the United States was imported. America had ceased the production of arsenic since 1985. Arsenic can be prepared in its pure form by heating arsenopyrite. It can also be found as by-products of other ores during smelting. (Edelstein 1996)
Many people, when they think of arsenic, think of the element as a deadly and dangerous poison. And so it is. However, it is rarely come upon nowadays in clinical practice. Inorganic arsenicals are more likely to cause poisoning then arsenic derived organically. Arsenic is often used in products such as weed killers, insecticides, and rodenticides. Ingestion of any of these can cause severe poisoning. Most of the toxic effects of arsenic are on the digestive system, such as burning gastroenteritis. It can also cause hypotension and circulatory collapse in the cardiovascular system, and headaches and weak muscles in the nervous system. Victims of arsenic poisoning may also experience blood in their urine. Of course there are treatments for arsenic poisoning, but it is imperative to first make sure that arsenic is the cause of the poisoning because the treatment can be just as hazardous. (Matthew and Lawson 1970)
Element 33, otherwise known as arsenic, is arguably one of the most well known elements in the world. At the same time, its properties and uses are considerably less known. Arsenic is the 20th most common naturally occurring element. It is present in all humans and is an easily obtainable poison. This element is also used in the production of ceramics, enamels, paint, wallpaper, glass, insecticides, pesticides, and rat poisons. (Turkington 1994) Arsenic also strengthens lead in batteries and improves copper alloys’ resistance to corrosion. (Edelstein 1996)
The electron configuration of arsenic is 2-8-18-5. (see Figure 3-A) (Web Elements 1998) In addition, it is a metalloid, meaning that it has characteristics of both metals and nonmetals. There are two valence states for arsenic: the pentavalent form and trivalent form. The pentavalent for is generally nontoxic and is organic. Though it seldom causes habitual poisoning, organic arsenic is potentially able to do it. The trivalent form of arsenic, such as arsenic trioxide, is inorganic and highly toxic. However, there are certain ambiguities about the trivalent form. In some cases, arsenic trioxide has been shown to have curative effects. (Arena 1986)
Though most people know that arsenic can kill, less know of its curative aspects. Arsenic was used in the treatment of syphilis before the introduction of penicillin. (Arena 1986) In other clinical uses, arsenic has been replaced by antibiotics and sulfa drugs. In recent years, a new curative effect of arsenic had been reported. A group of researchers in Shanghai, China had discovered ten years ago a remedy for acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) that had previously been fatal. They found that all-trans-retinoic acid (ATRA) was a strong combatant against APL. Now, they have found what seems to be an even more potent drug against APL in a traditional Chinese cure-all. (Mervis 1996)
The story started 25 years ago when a group of doctors from the Harbin Medical University, including Zhang Ting-Dong, were sent into northeast China to gather proof of Mao Tse-Tung’s belief that classical Chinese medicine was superior to Western methods. There, Zhang found that arsenic trioxide was the hidden component in the cure for arthritis, skin diseases and other illnesses. Though arsenic trioxide can produce alarming side effects, it is relatively safe when administered in small doses, intravenously. The researchers isolated the arsenic trioxide from the traditional Chinese remedy and tested it against various cancers. It was found to have worked extremely well against APL and in one case, 14 out of 15 terminal APL victims realized complete remissions when treated with arsenic trioxide. (Mervis 1996)
The way arsenic trioxide works is still under scrutiny, but it appears to act very differently from ATRA. ATRA does not kill APL cells. Instead, ATRA keeps the cell from dividing unchecked. Arsenic trioxide, according to the journal Blood, stimulates cell death in an APL cell line. Arsenic trioxide, though it does not get rid of all leukemic cells, does allow patients to benefit from remissions lasting for 18 months or more. Some have been cancer free for 20 years. Complete remission from APL has been accomplished for about 70% of the patients. (Mervis 1996)
Despite its virtues, arsenic is a deadly element. As of now, the chief problem with arsenic is its contamination of groundwater throughout the world because it is present throughout the earth’s crust. (Turkington 1994) The slightest amount of this tainted water can lead to cancer and as of now, over 700 hazardous-waste sites in the U.S. are contaminated with arsenic. Health officials wish to remove the arsenic from the soil and water, but are unable to do it until they understand how the element reacts with environment and how its compounds alter over time. (Brown 1997)
Professor Hemond and students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been studying how arsenic moves within the Aberjona Watershed ecosystem north of Boston. They use an instrument that quickly identifies various layers of soils and sediments. (see Figure 4-A) This allows the researchers to predict possible paths for water laced with arsenic. They have found that arsenic there frequently alternate between two compounds: arsenate and arsenite. Arsenite is extremely toxic and highly soluble in water, thus making it easier for humans to ingest it. Arsenate, on the other hand, is less toxic and does not dissolve as easily. The students have also discovered a microbe that consumes arsenate and releases arsenite. (See figure 5-A) Another student has also found a bacterium that does the opposite by converting arsenite to arsenate. They hope to use these microorganisms to help clean up arsenic contamination. (Brown 1997) Other studies have led toxicologists to suggest lowering the federal limit of 50 parts per billion to two parts per trillion. This is especially recommended for California because of the high concentration levels of arsenic here. (Turkington 1994)
Some experts, however, dispute the idea that arsenic causes cancer, namely bladder cancer due to drinking arsenic tainted water. Studies have been done in Taiwan where the water is naturally contaminated with high levels of arsenic. The studies concluded that the tainted water could be linked with an acutely heightened chance for bladder cancer. Although this study has aroused concern in the United States, because bladder cancer is among the nine most prevailing cancers in America, some have pointed out that the risk may be overestimated. There is the possibility of other contributing factors to the cancer such as “an underlying genetic vulnerability to the cancer, the malnutrition endemic in arsenic-tainted Taiwan, and the presence of other water pollutants.” (Raloff 1966)
A new study, however, seem to strengthen and prove the idea that arsenic is directly linked with bladder cancer. The study was conducted in C?rdoba, a province in Argentina whose water is without the additional pollutants such as in the case of Taiwan. In addition, the inhabitants of the province have an ethnic background similar to the United States and a low occurrence of malnutrition. The study was led by Claudia Hopenhayn-Rich from the University of California, Berkeley. The water in C?rdoba has high levels of naturally occurring arsenic and the residents there have a bladder cancer rate about twice as high as Argentina’s average. (Raloff 1996)
India is another area of major concern. Over a million Indians in West Bengal have been drinking water contaminated with high concentrations of arsenic. (see Figure 6-A) Around 200,000 people have been diagnosed with skin lesions due to arsenic. Many of them have hardened strips of epidermis called hyperkeratoses that may potentially develop into cancers. (see Figure 7-A) It is very probable that tens of millions more can be in danger in areas that have not been tested for arsenic. Attention was first drawn to West Bengal in the 1980s when cases of poisonings were reported. The extent of the problem was far more widespread then was at first thought. (Bagla and Kaiser 1996)
Dipankar Chakrabortik, a chemist from the School of Environmental Sciences at Jadavpur University, has been conducting studies on the problem for over ten years. His team have tested 20,000 tube wells and found that 62% of them contained levels of arsenic higher than is allowable by the World Health Organization (WHO). Samples from the inhabitants’ hair, urine, skin, and nails have shown that they had ingested large amounts of arsenic over the years. Many experts of arsenic and toxicology are interested in the pending crisis in India because of the wealth of information to be gained. It would be possible to discover what diseases arsenic causes and the information learned could help countries such as Taiwan, Chile, and Mongolia, where there are large problems with arsenic contamination. (Bagla and Kaiser 1996)
Response from the Indian government to the crisis is low. They had approved a project that costs $25 million in 1995 that would supply piped water to the Malda district, but there has been scant improvement. In fact, the problem has grown more widespread. Tube wells that were not previously contaminated are now tainted and the federal government still seems oblivious to the gravity of the tragedy. However, experts from around the world are continuing their efforts to study the problem and are seeking help from WHO and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (Bagla and Kaiser 1996)
The water is not the only place where arsenic can harm humans however. Arsenic can be found almost everywhere, including your next meal. Fish often contain traces of arsenic and other chemicals. Arsenic is also commonly added to chicken feed to accelerate growth and stimulate the production of eggs. Often traces of this element and other chemicals can be found in the carcasses of the chickens when they are killed for sale in the stores. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has little chance to test the meat before it is packed and sent into the markets. Even if a sample was to be tested, by the time the results are returned the meat is already for sale at the supermarkets. (Dadd 1992)
Another place where arsenic can be found is in the unborn children. In Bulgaria, the unborn children of the women living in vicinity of a copper-smelting plant have a high mortality rate. They are often born with fatal defects due to the fact that their mothers were exposed to high levels of arsenic. Certain defects occurred consistently in the studies done, such as small forebrains and ear pits that are underdeveloped. (Stone 1994)
There are many stories about victims being intentionally poisoned with arsenic, but do any of these poisonings ever occur in real life? Well, some historians have held that Pope Alexander the VI was murdered with red wine laced with arsenic, (Stone 1994) and there are other, more lucky, victims who would say yes, intentional arsenic poisoning does occur in real life. Quite a few victims seem to be men. Among them include J.J. Walker, Mr. Maybrick of the Maybrick case, and an “unhappily married man”. Two out of three survived the effects of the poisoning, but recovery has been slow and may never be complete.
J.J. Walker was first admitted to Providence Hospital due to severe pain in the abdomen. The doctors were at a lost as to what was causing the pain. At first, the doctors thought that the problem was appendicitis, but tests showed that it was far more serious. Walker had a low blood count for all three types of blood cells, but his bowel contents were normal. As doctors ran tests to find out what was wrong, Walker’s condition worsened and his lower legs became paralyzed. Finally, the medics thought of poisoning and ran several tests; among them was a test for arsenic. It turned out that J.J. Walker had ingested arsenic, several times in rather large doses. Investigators were sent to Walker’s workplace and home but found no traces of arsenic. He was even assessed by a psychiatrist to see if he was suicidal and his wife was also questioned closely, but all searches came up empty-handed. After two months of treatment, the effects of the arsenic began to lessen and the paralysis that had traveled up to his chest retreated; though he still needed a cane to walk. During his stay at the hospital, Walker discovered that his best friend and his wife were having an affair and that it was his wife that had poisoned him. Needless to say, the Walkers divorced. (Weaver 1995)
The Maybrick case is another incidence of a husband being poisoned. It occurred over a century ago, but it still commands some interest. Mrs. Maybrick was convicted for murdering her husband with arsenic by the jury based on circumstantial evidence. Upon inspection however, it seems like Mrs. Maybrick should have been acquitted. Any points in the case that indicated her innocence were ridiculed by the judge. It was shown later that the judge was ailing from paretic dementia. The evidence against the wife was that she had bought arsenical flypaper and soon afterwards Mr. Maybrick became ill with excruciating stomach and intestinal inflammation. Arsenic was found in his food and also around the house. However, the jury failed to recognize that Mr. Maybrick was a chronic arsenic eater, which would explain the arsenic around the house. Indeed, Mr. Maybrick had not eaten the food made by his wife the day that he became seriously ill. Along with other instances that showed the lack of evidence against the wife, Mrs. Maybrick should have been acquitted. (Flanagin 1995)
Arsenic is extremely hard to recognize and sometimes takes doctors a while to discover the reason for a patient’s illness. In the case of the “unhappily married man”, the doctors thought that he was afflicted with Guillain-Barr?. For over a year they treated him for an illness he did not have. While he continued to worsen, they found he had hyperkeratosis, weak muscles, and white transverse lines upon his nails. (see Figure 8-A) Arsenic was finally suspected and samples of the man’s hair, nails, and urine were taken to test for the poison. Arsenic was found in high concentrations in all three samples. In the hair, there was 97 mg/kg. Normal concentrations are 0.5-. 5 mg/kg. In the nails there was 150 mg/kg, while the normal amount was 4-10 mg/kg. The arsenic level in the urine sample was equally high compared with normal conditions. He was treated with intramuscular dimercaprol and eventually recovered but he was still on the recuperation agenda. The doctors were still unaware of the origin of the arsenic poisoning. Eventually though, his wife confessed to putting the deadly element in the form of an ant-killer in his meals because she wanted to end their marriage and receive custody of their child. (Navarro et al. 1996) Though arsenic was the “poison par excellence,” toxicologists now know so much about it that it is unprofitable for the poisoner to use it. Indeed, most cases of arsenic poisoning nowadays stem from arsenic-tainted environments or handling substances contaminated by arsenic. (Bodin and Cheinisse 1970)
Arsenic is a very potent poison that works quickly, especially when ingested in a fairly large dose. Just over a hundred milligrams of arsenic trioxide would kill. In a large dose, arsenic can kill fairly quickly and the victim would die before the start of the archetypal manifestations to the nervous system. Symptoms of arsenic poisoning include inflammation of the gastric and intestinal areas along with severe vomiting and diarrhea spotted with blood. Excruciating pain, a severe thirst, and a general attack on all the systems of the body is experienced by the patient. If the patient is fortunate, the cardiovascular system would collapse and death would intervene within a few hours. However, some victims remain alive for several days. This torture is made worse because the patient remains rational and intelligible. Other symptoms include hyperkeratosis, which hardens and thicken the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet. The patient’s skin coloring might also become a coffee color and scabby. (Bodin and Cheinisse 1970)
“1. Intensive supportive therapy
2. Treatment with dimercaprol should be initiated at once…; 4 mg/kg intramuscularly every four hours for 48 hours, followed by 3 mg/kg twice daily for eight days constitutes the maximum recommended dosage. These injections are painful and locally irritant. They should therefore be given in different sites successively.
3. Renal damage may be severe and require peritoneal dialysis or haemodialysis.
4. Liver damage may require conventional therapy, and where this fails exchange blood transfusion.” (Matthew and Lawson 1970)
If arsenic does not kill you outright, it causes cancer. The studies done in Taiwan were due to the epidemic of bladder cancer, believed to be caused by arsenic in the water. In C?rdoba, Argentina, it is the same: arsenic laden water and a high cancer rate. In fact, the cancer causes 23 percent of the deaths in the area. (Schroeder1974) A good test to detect the presence of even a minute amount of the element was developed by English chemist James Marsh. The test is named the Marsh test in honor of him. The sample to be tested is put into a hydrogen generator. If there is any arsenic in the substance, it would be converted to arsine (AsH3). Arsine then combines with the evolved hydrogen. Next, the hydrogen is heated as it moves through a glass tube, thus breaking up the arsine and the arsenic is left in the tube. The miniscule amounts still produce a considerable stain. (Bodin and Cheinisse 1970)
As more and more is learned about arsenic, the world becomes better prepared to deal with the problems caused by this element. It is one of the most common elements and is easily available. As it is right now, arsenic poses a serious threat to the lives of nearly all humans because of its toxicity and amount in the world. Several countries have already felt the damage caused by arsenic.
The poison travels easily in water and is present in much of the world’s groundwater, which is a large source of our drinking water. Arsenic has been shown to cause cancer and deaths. However, the element is obviously very ambiguous because in other studies it has been shown to have a healing effect. Any research done within the next few years would greatly add to our knowledge of the element and enable us to protect ourselves. The impending crisis in India would be a good opportunity to study the effects of the poison and perhaps show the rest of the world the importance of awareness and spur them into action. Arsenic is a deadly element that must be contained and regulated more strictly than it is now. As yet, few people know much about the effects of arsenic. This is unfortunate since it is an element that will most likely affect the lives of many people on this planet within the next few decades.
As said before, arsenic is a very ambiguous element. It has the both effect of curing diseases and causing them. In addition, its colorful history makes it a highly entertaining topic to study. With its impact on humankind and in the ecosystem, it also offers a ready problem for scientists to work on that will impact many lives. With more knowledge, the world will be able to use arsenic in the manners most beneficial to humankind.
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