Arsenic in Our Environment

Arsenic is a natural element found in rocks and soil and is often found in well water. It can also come from human activities and is used in some consumer products like metal alloys, paint pigments and as a wood preservative. It is also used in children’s products like pencil cases and school bags.

What You Need to Know About Arsenic
What are the health effects of arsenic?

Over time, arsenic causes cancer in humans. It may also cause the skin to darken or cause corns or warts on the torso, palms, or soles of the feet.

Arsenic can affect how babies develop before and after they are born. It can also affect these systems and organs in the body:

  • Nervous system

  • Respiratory system

  • Cardiovascular system

  • Immune system

  • Endocrine system

  • Liver

  • Kidney

  • Bladder

  • Prostate

  • Skin

Children may be more susceptible to arsenic’s health effects. This is because children eat more food per body weight and can get a higher dose of arsenic from their diet than adults.

Babies can come in contact with arsenic by eating rice cereal. Rice takes up arsenic as it grows more easily than other food crops. Because of this, the Food and Drug Administration recommends feeding babies a variety of infant cereals. This will help limit the amount of rice cereal babies eat. Read more about arsenic in rice cereal

Drinking water with arsenic over a long period of time may cause an increased lifetime risk of bladder, lung or skin cancer. There also may be links to skin and cardiovascular diseases, diabetes or other cancers. Learn more about arsenic in drinking water

How could I come in contact with arsenic?

Every day, people take in arsenic from the air, water and food. Of these, food is usually the main source. This is generally because of the levels found in seafood, fish, and rice or rice products. However, this form of arsenic is different than the arsenic in rocks and soil.

Here are other ways you can come in contact with arsenic:

  • Drinking water containing arsenic

  • Breathing in fumes from burning fossil fuels or smelting

  • Breathing in sawdust when sawing or sanding pressure treated wood containing chromium copper arsenate (CCA)

  • Swallowing soil contaminated with arsenic. Contaminated soil may stick to vegetables, particularly leafy greens. Although arsenic is naturally found in soils, there may be elevated levels from historical pesticide use on farmland, especially apple orchards. 

How do I know if I came in contact with arsenic?

Arsenic can be found in your urine if you recently came in contact with it. If you came in contact with arsenic in the last six to 12 months, other tests can measure the levels of arsenic in your blood, fingernails or hair.

Arsenic in Pressure-treated Wood

Arsenic is found in chromium copper arsenate (CCA). CCA was used in pressure-treated wood to protect wood from rotting, which made decks and children’s play structures last longer.

In 2004, CCA was no longer used in pressure treated wood used for outdoor residential structures like decks and play structures. Now, naturally rot-resistant woods (e.g. redwood and cedar), wood-plastic composite materials, or pressure treated wood with other preservatives are used. However, older pressure treated wood may still contain CCA.

What You Need to Know About Arsenic in Pressure-treated Wood
Can I come in contact with arsenic from CCA-treated wood?

Arsenic can come out of CCA-treated wood. It can contaminate the soil directly below and next to the wood, or it can leave a residue on the wood’s surface.

Young children and people who work with wood are most likely to come in contact with CCA-treated wood.

Children could come in contact with arsenic while playing on or under structures made with CCA-treated wood. Their clothes and hands could pick up arsenic from the soil and the surface of the play structure.

People who spend a lot of time working with CCA-treated wood, including contractors and homeowners, could come in contact with high levels of arsenic, especially if they do not use protective gear.

If you have garden beds that are framed with CCA-treated wood, the Health Department recommends building new raised beds or garden borders with different materials.

How can I stay safe from CCA-treated wood?

Here are some ways to lower your chances of coming in contact with arsenic in CCA-treated wood:

  • Follow the Consumer Product Safety Commission's safe handling guidelines.

  • Seal existing CCA-treated structures (for example, decks and playground structures) every year with a sealant such as an oil-based stain. Do not sand before sealing.

  • Keep children, pets, garden tools and storage items out from under deck areas where arsenic may be on the ground or in the soil.

  • Install skirting around decks and porches to keep children from going under the structures.

  • Use a tablecloth when eating on treated wood picnic tables to keep food away from the wood.

  • Wash your hands thoroughly after touching the wood.

  • Make sure you do not burn the wood since smoke and ash contain chemicals.

  • Avoid using deck washes or bleaches since they may pull more arsenic from the wood.

What should I do if I have to work with CCA-treated wood?

Sawing or sanding CCA-treated wood requires special precautions:

  • Work outdoors on a drop cloth so that sawdust can be collected and thrown away.

  • Wear gloves, a dust mask and eye protection.

  • Wash your hands as soon as you complete any work.

  • Wash the clothes you wore separately.

How do I dispose of CCA-treated wood?

Do not burn CCA-treated wood since smoke and ash contain chemicals. Throw away CCA-treated wood instead of using it for wood chips, compost or mulch.

CCA-treated wood is a regulated solid waste under Vermont law. For home uses, disposal can be through ordinary trash collection. For more information about disposal, call the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation’s Solid Waste Management Program at 802-241-3444.

More Information
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Pressure Treated Wood Handling and Disposing (EPA)
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Arsenic in Drinking Water
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