Effects of Arsenic Exposure on Fetal Health


Christina Liu, B.S. | Water Nerd   

Studies have found that pregnant women are especially susceptible to the harmful effects of Arsenic exposure. Arsenic exposure can drastically impact reproductive outcomes, affect fetal development, and can lead to long term health problems. It’s estimated that 2 million Americans have private wells and drink water with unsafe levels of Arsenic. However, the association between chronic arsenic exposure and adverse pregnancy outcomes is not widely recognized.

How Are People Exposed to Arsenic?

Arsenic exposure most commonly occurs from drinking water, especially from well water or groundwater sources–arsenic is found in the ground, is naturally occurring, and leaches into groundwater. If you use a private well in certain areas of the country, it’s likely that Arsenic is present at elevated levels. Even if you don’t use a private well for drinking water, your municipal tap supply can still contain high levels of Arsenic. Places like Phoenix, ArizonaLincoln, Nebraska, and Reno, Nevada, are notorious for having high levels of arsenic in tap water, because these areas typically source drinking water from the ground. People using municipal water should check their water supplier’s water quality reports to get an understanding of whether arsenic is present in their drinking water. Waste from coal ash ponds and other industrial activities are two other ways that arsenic can contaminate water supplies. 

What Happens When There’s Arsenic Exposure During Pregnancy?

Increased Risk of Miscarriage, Infant Mortality, & Lower Birth Weight:
During pregnancy, arsenic can pass through the placenta from mother to fetus, resulting in fetal exposure levels equivalent to those of the mother. Recent studies indicate a link between arsenic exposure and a moderately increased risk of impaired fetal growth and increased fetal and infant mortality. A comprehensive review of research studies showed that high levels of arsenic in groundwater (>50 ppb) were associated with an increased risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant mortality. In addition, 4 studies indicated that exposure to environmental arsenic was associated with a significant reduction in birth weight.

Neurotoxic Effects on Fetal Development:
Prenatal and early postnatal exposure to arsenic has been linked to reduction in brain development, including lower brain weight and reduced growth and development of pathways in the brain. The scientists from these studies conclude that “the published literature indicates that arsenic is a human developmental neurotoxicant.”

Fetal Exposure Can Affect Health Into Adulthood: 
Studies have indicated that arsenic can access the developing brain and cause neurotoxic effects including deficits in intelligence and memory, although some neurocognitive consequences may manifest only later in life. Some of these health effects include a higher mortality from cancer, cardiovascular disease and respiratory disease. This is supported by epidemiologic studies that these and other negative health outcomes in adulthood suggest a link to arsenic exposure in early life.

Maternal Health During Pregnancy: 
Studies have reported that arsenic exposure is linked to increased blood pressure and anemia during pregnancy. 

How Does Arsenic Exposure Impact Adults? 

Arsenic exposure in adults is associated with a host of negative health effects including cancers of the skin, bladder, lung, kidney, liver, prostate, and nasal passages. Non-cancer related negative health effects have been observed to affect the cardiovascular, pulmonary, immunological, neurological, and endocrine systems. In addition to its role in multiple types of cancer, long-term exposure to arsenic has been linked to developmental effects, cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity and diabetes.

What Should I Do About Arsenic In My Drinking Water?

Because of the numerous negative health effects caused by exposure to arsenic – both long-term exposure in adults as well as effects on the fetus and mother during pregnancy, we strongly advise people (especially those drinking water from private wells), to get their water tested, to look up the water quality reports from their municipal water supplier (if they’re on city water), and to mitigate for arsenic if it’s present in their drinking water whenever possible. 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) federal drinking water standard for arsenic in drinking water is 10 parts per billion (ppb). However, drinking water with arsenic at levels lower than the EPA standard over many years can still increase your risk of cancer and other health effects. As a result, EPA sets health risk goals, and the EPA’s goal for arsenic in drinking water is 0 µg/L (0 ppb). This means that realistically, there is no safe level of arsenic in drinking water. When arsenic is present in drinking water, mitigation measures for arsenic removal should be implemented whenever possible.

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