I had the good fortune to be one of 40 people invited to participate in the 2014 MDIBL Human and Environmental Sustainability Summit 2014 on the Environmental and Human Health Consequences of Arsenic. The participants included scientists, consumer advocates, health officials, food industry representatives, educators, and policy makers. The conference was sponsored by Nature’s One, the Superfund Research Programs at Dartmouth, and the University of Arizona.
Exposure to arsenic in drinking water represents a significant health problem for people around the world. People are exposed to elevated levels of inorganic arsenic through drinking contaminated water, using contaminated water in food preparation and crop irrigation, eating contaminated food, smoking tobacco, and industrial processing. Some 3 billion people are exposed to arsenic in food and 500 million ingest arsenic in drinking water. While there are about two parts arsenic for every million parts of rock or soil on average, arsenic is not distributed evenly throughout the globe. Concentrations can be seen in India, China, and South America, as well as several New England and Southwestern states in the U.S. In 1997, the World Health Organization recognized arsenic in drinking water as a major public health problem requiring emergency attention. Arsenic is number one on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) list of hazardous substances.
Human exposure to arsenic has been linked to an array of adverse health effects. Drinking water with arsenic for many years can lead to cancer of the bladder, lung, liver, prostate, and skin; diabetes; heart disease; reproductive and developmental problems; and cardiovascular, pulmonary, immunological, neurological, and endocrine problems. Fetuses and babies exposed to arsenic face an increased potential for cancer and other diseases in adulthood. Exposure has also been associated with increased infant mortality, reduced birth weight, and reduced ability to fight other diseases. See this earlier post on arsenic’s impact on IQs.
While attention has been traditionally paid to high-dose arsenic exposures through drinking water and of industrial workers, recent studies have focused on the equally pernicious effects of low level exposures via both water and food. For example, application of pesticides containing arsenic by U.S. cotton, tobacco, grape and apple growers in the 1950s has resulted in low levels of the heavy metal remaining in treated soils because arsenic does not break down. This human use of arsenic adds to the arsenic exposures already naturally occurring. Food plants, like rice, that take in arsenic from the soil pose health risks to humans who eat them on a regular basis.
Regulating arsenic in water has improved in the U.S., but is limited in scope. In 2001, the EPA lowered the public drinking water standard for arsenic from 50 to 10 parts per billion (ppb). But its authority under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act is limited to public, not private, drinking water systems and so a broad swath of people living in more rural areas remain exposed. For example, about 40 percent of New Hampshire’s 1.3 million people drink water from private wells. In some parts of the state, about one in five private wells contain high levels of arsenic from naturally-occurring sources in bedrock. Other states with unusually high arsenic level include Maine, Michigan, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Nevada.
Regulating arsenic in food is minimal. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration currently does not set minimum standards, but is considering establishing limits for arsenic in food products such as fruit juice and rice. See this earlier post on rice, this one on apple juice, and this one about the FDA’s statement on arsenic levels in rice.
The forty summit participants committed to working towards specific goals to reduce exposure to arsenic, build awareness and education and develop a committed network of stakeholders. Over the next two months, we will develop a consensus statement that conveys why arsenic is a major health problem and what can be done about it. This statement will be used as a platform for action, fundraising, and advocacy. Other goals include creating a classroom curriculum about arsenic and developing cost-effective technologies for the identification and reduction of arsenic in drinking water. Plans for a follow-up summit in 2015 are being formulated.
“The summit brought together a group of diverse stakeholders who are committed to taking action to reducing arsenic exposure in water and food to improve public health,” says Bruce Stanton, who convened the conference in collaboration with the MDI Biological Laboratory. Stanton is a professor at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, director of Dartmouth’s Center for Environmental Health Sciences, and a visiting faculty member at the MDI Biological Laboratory. “I was impressed by the enthusiasm and dedication of all participants and their development of ambitious, but achievable, goals to reduce disease caused by arsenic in the environment.”
The MDI Biological Laboratory is an independent, nonprofit biomedical research institution with a long history of bringing people together to solve problems in health and the environment. It launched the annual Human and Environmental Sustainability Summits in 2013 to enable stakeholders with a variety of perspectives to meet and develop effective solutions to environmental health issues.