A new study confirms that even low levels of arsenic in drinking water can impair lung function – and researchers say some 13 million Americans may be at risk.
Arsenic, a notorious poison, is a naturally occurring element that seeps into groundwater from surrounding soil and rock. For many years its presence was dismissed by public health officials as presenting little risk. No more.
A study conducted in Bangladesh and published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine found that people drinking water with low levels of arsenic – 19 parts per billion– showed signs of reduced lung function. At levels of 120 p.p.b. or higher, their lung function resembled that of longtime smokers.
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In the U.S., municipal water supplies are required to meet the EPA’s standard of 10 p.b.b. or less of arsenic. However, for private wells, no such regulation exists. Nationwide, 13 million Americans get their drinking waters from private wells with levels above the federal standard, say researchers.
“This is not just a problem for South Asia,” said the study’s senior author, Habibul Ahsan, M.D., of the University of Chicago. “About 13 million people in the United States get water from a private well that contains more arsenic that the legal limit. No comparable, large, prospective study has been done in this country.”
In Southwestern states such as Nevada, wells sometimes contain more than 500 p.p.b. of arsenic. Parts of the Midwest and New England, where arsenic-laden bedrock is common, also have high concentrations of the poison.
Margaret Karagas, a Dartmouth epidemiologist, who studied the effects of arsenic exposure in pregnant women, says widespread tests of drinking water are needed.
“If people have private well, they need to have them tested for arsenic,” she told The New York Times. “You want to know what’s in your water.”
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