ARSENIC IN GROUNDWATER
This pamphlet provides answers to questions
about arsenic in drinking water. It will explain what arsenic is, how it can
enter groundwater, how it can affect your health, and what you can do to
prevent or reduce exposure to it.
Arsenic is a metal-like substance found in
small amounts in nature. Elevated levels of arsenic can be found naturally in
groundwater in some areas of Illinois. Arsenic in groundwater also may be the
result of contamination caused by hazardous waste or industries that make or
use arsenic. Drinking water containing high levels of arsenic may cause health
HOW MIGHT I BE EXPOSED TO
A person can come into contact with arsenic in
many different ways. Since it is a natural part of the environment, everyone is
exposed to small amounts of arsenic. For most people, the largest source of
arsenic is in the food we eat. Most foods, including vegetables, fish, and
seafood, contain some arsenic. Arsenic in groundwater can enter the body
by drinking the water or by eating food cooked in the water. Arsenic does not
evaporate into the air and is not easily absorbed through the skin.
HOW CAN ARSENIC GET INTO MY DRINKING
There are two main ways arsenic can get into
your drinking water. Mineral deposits in some areas of Illinois naturally
contain high levels of arsenic. Groundwater flowing through these deposits can
dissolve arsenic from the minerals. This can increase the amount of arsenic in
your well water.
Another way arsenic can get into your water is
by contact with hazardous waste. Waste material containing arsenic is produced
by industries that make or use arsenic. Arsenic has been used as a wood
preservative, in pesticides, and in special kinds of glass. Improper disposal
of this waste can contaminate groundwater.
Arsenic has no smell or taste, so you cannot
tell if it is in your drinking water. The only way to find out if your well
water has high levels of arsenic is to have it tested.
HOW CAN ARSENIC AFFECT MY HEALTH?
Health effects caused by arsenic depend on a
variety of things. These include the type and amount of arsenic that has
entered the body, how long you have been exposed to arsenic, and how the body
responds to arsenic. Unborn babies, young children, people with long-term
illnesses and elderly people are at greatest risk due to arsenic
How arsenic affects health is not fully known.
Studies in the United States have not clearly proved that health problems
result from drinking water with arsenic levels similar to those naturally found
in groundwater in some Illinois wells. Studies in other countries have shown
that drinking water containing elevated levels of arsenic can cause the
following health effects:
- Thickening and discoloration of the skin.
Sometimes these changes can lead to skin cancer, which may be curable if
- Digestive problems such as stomach pain,
nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
- Numbness in the hands and feet.
Many of these health effects are often seen
with other common illnesses, so detecting arsenic poisoning can be difficult.
If you or your family members are concerned
about health problems you believe to be related to arsenic in your water, you
should consult your physician and have your well water tested.
HOW CAN I GET MY WELL WATER
Many commercial laboratories will test for
arsenic in your water for a small fee. The Illinois Department of Public Health
(IDPH) laboratories can test a sample as well. Contact your local health
department or a regional IDPH office for information and assistance.
IS THERE AN ACCEPTABLE LEVEL OF ARSENIC IN
In October 2001, the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency (USEPA) established a new maximum level for arsenic in public
water supplies. The new USEPA standard is 10 parts per billion or 0.01 parts
per million; however, public water supplies have until January 2006 to meet
this new standard. This level also serves as a guideline for an acceptable
level in private wells. Staff at the Illinois Department of Public Health can
explain your well water test results.
HOW CAN I REDUCE MY EXPOSURE TO ARSENIC IN
If elevated levels of arsenic are found in your
well, we recommend that you stop using your well water for drinking and
preparing food. Bottled water can serve as an alternative for these purposes.
You can continue to use your well water for bathing and washing clothes without
IS THERE A TEST TO DETERMINE IF I HAVE BEEN
EXPOSED TO ARSENIC?
If you think you have been exposed to arsenic,
you should consult your doctor. Arsenic can be measured in blood, urine, hair,
or nails. Of these, a urine test is the simplest way to tell if you are being
exposed to arsenic at levels of concern. Hair and nail tests show if you have
been exposed to arsenic in the past.
WHERE CAN I GET MORE INFORMATION?
Illinois Department of Public Health
Division of Environmental Health
525 W. Jefferson St.
Springfield, IL 62761
TTY (hearing impaired use only) 800-547-0466
This pamphlet was supported in part by funds
from the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act
trust fund through a cooperative agreement with the Agency for Toxic Substances
and Disease Registry, Public Health Service, U.S. Department of Health and