Arsenic: King of Poison
Arsenic is naturally present at high levels in
groundwater in many countries.
Arsenic is highly toxic in its inorganic form.
Contaminated water used for drinking, food preparation
and irrigation of food crops poses the greatest threat to
public health from arsenic.
Long-term exposure to arsenic from drinking-water and
food can cause cancer and skin lesions. It has
also been associated with cardiovascular disease and
diabetes. In utero and early childhood exposure has
been linked to negative impacts on cognitive
development and increased deaths in young adults.
known as 'Senko Bish' among the Bengali-speaking people.
This term is also used in the books in Bengali on medical
The use of
arsenic as a deadly poison has been known since long years
back. After winning the War of Waterloo, the British force
reportedly used arsenic to kill French Emperor Nepoleon
Bonapart who was in exile at St. Helena island. After his
death on May 5, 1821, it was announced that Nepoleon died of
stomach cancer. But many people thought that the Englishmen
applied slow poisoning to kill Napoleon. The British people
denied the allegation. But after many years, the hair of the
French Emperor, reserved at a museum, was tested and it was
proved that he was killed by poison, and the name of poison
is arsenic. Arsenic was found in Nepoleon's hair 13 times
more than the normal level.
CHEMISTRY OF ARSENIC:
a crystal-shape metalloid element, which is brittle in
nature, and gray or tin-white in colour. Arsenic is a
Group-V element in the periodic chart . Its atomic number is
33, and the atomic weight is 74.92.
cannot be found in nature as a free element. It exhibits a
broad range of chemical reactivity with an ability to form
alloys with other elements and covalent bonds. Arsenic
precipitates readily in oxidation-reduction,
methylation-demethylation and acidbase reactions.
can not only create compounds with oxygen, chlorine, sulfur,
carbon and hydrogen, but also with lead, mercury, gold and
iron. It mainly remains as oxide, hydrate, sulfide, arsenete,
and arsenite. Gold, silver, copper, zinc, iron, and other
metals exist with arsenic in these chemical compounds.
As many as
150 species of arsenic bearing minerals exist in the earth.
But only three of them are considered as arsenic ore.
Because, the amount of arsenic is higher in these three
compounds. Moreover, they are more available than other
arsenic compounds. These three compounds are Realgar or
arsenic disulfide, orpiment or arsenic trisulfide, and
arsenopyrite or ferus arsenic sulfide. There are differences
in the physical properties of these three types of arsenic
minerals. But a common feature of them is a garlic-like
odour. Arsenopyrite has been primarily identified as the
main source of arsenic pollution in the groundwater of
Bangladesh and West Bengal. When arsenopyrite oxidises and
mixes with water, no smell is found in the water. Arsenic
burns in air giving off an odour of garlic and dense white
fumes of arsenic trioxide.
arsenic compounds are two types- inorganic and organic
arsenic. Inorganic arsenic are divided into two types-
trivalent and pentavalent arsenic. Inorganic arsenic are
more toxic than the organic ones. The trivalent arsenic is
60 times more toxic than pentavalent arsenic. Trivalent
arsenic compounds are known as arsenite and the pentavalents
are as arsenate. Usually there are four types of arsenic
compounds existing in water. These are arsenite, arsenate,
monomethyl arsonic acid and dimethyl arsinic acid. But in
the groundwater arsenic predominantly occurs in the tri- and
pentavalent form. These two were found in the groundwater of
Bangladesh and West Bengal.
of some inorganic arsenic compounds can be mentioned here-
arsenous oxide or arsenic trioxide, sodium arsenite,
potassium arsenite, copper arsenite, copper acetoarsenite,
arsenic acid, sodium arsenate, potassium arsenate, arsenic
disulfide or realgar, orpiment or arsenic trisulfide,
arsenopyrite, arsine, arsenic triiodide, etc.. Organic
arsenic compounds include monomethyl arsonic acid, dimethyl
arsinic acid or cacodylic acid, sodium cacodylet, atoxyl,
stovarsol, sulpharsinamine etc..
PRESENCE OF ARSENIC IN
ENVIRONMENT, LIVING ORGANISMS AND EARTH:
a ubiquitous element being widely distributed in the earth.
Nature itself is an adequate source of arsenic. According to
availability of natural elements in environment, the
position of arsenic is 20th.
found in atmosphere, in the aquatic environment, in soils
and sediments and in organisms. Different minerals of
arsenic are mixed with underground rock. The arsenic
contents of the earth's crust is 1.5-2 mg/kg. However,
arsenic up to 550 mg. can prevail in per kg. polluted soil.
Arsenic poison can spread in air from the industrial wastes.
Generally, nominal amount of arsenic also exists in water.
Per liter natural water contains 1-2 microgram of arsenic.
quantity of arsenic is also found in most of the fruits,
vegetables, fish and meat. But high level of arsenic exists
in sea water. Food of marine origin are much richer in
arsenic than other foods. Arsenic up to 5 milligram can be
found in per kilogram of sea fish. It means human beings are
getting some amount of arsenic through air, food and drinks
everyday. But the arsenic does not cause damage of human
bodies as its extent is very minimum. The arsenic which are
received through food is generally organic. Its poisonous
effect is low in comparison to inorganic arsenic. Usually a
man can receive arsenic up to 150 microgram for per kilogram
weight of his body without any effect. But sensitive
individual may however fall sick for only 20 microgram
a lot of arsenic in earth's bio-mass. Arsenic also exists in
lava of volcano. Geothermal system and uranium and gold
mines are sources of arsenic. It occurs in the air in areas
where coal is burnt, particularly near smelter and
USES OF ARSENIC:
compounds are mainly used in agriculture, forestry, and
industrial processes. Arsenic tri-oxide is used in
manufacturing of agricultural chemicals (pesticides), glass
and glassware, industrial chemicals, copper and lead alloys
agriculture , arsenic compounds such as lead arsenate,
copperacetoarsenite, sodium arsenite, calcium arsenate and
organic arsenic compounds are used as pesticides.
Substantial amount of methyl arsonic acid and dimethyl
arsinic acid are used as selective herbicides.
Chromated copper arsenite,
sodium arsenate and zinc arsenate are used as wood
preservatives. Some phenylarsenic compounds such as
asranilic acid are used as feed additives for poultry and
amount of arsenic continue to be used as drugs in some
countries. As medicine arsenic is used since the 5th century
BC when Hippocrates recommended the use of an arsenic
sulfide for the treatment of abscess. Arsenic preparations
were used for the treatment of skin disorder, tuberculosis,
leukemia, asthma, leprosy, syphilis, amoebic dysentery etc..
Homeopaths are also using arsenic as drug.
arsenic is used in the preparation of dyes, poisonous gas,
transistor, as a component of semiconductor, as a
preservative in tanning and in the industry of textile,
EXTENSITY OF ARSENIC
arsenic pollution problem took a severe shape in the present
world. The pollution has been spread more or less in every
continent. It occurs as results of geological processes and
different development activities- agriculture, exploration
of mineral resources and their processing-by human being.
Arsenic pollution took place in different states of the
world due to various reasons.
(Source: Dhaka Community Hospital: Hosted: May, 2001)
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