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Scientists Sound Alarm Over Arsenic Contamination of Drinking Water

By Jake Beardslee · August 6, 2023

In brief…

  • Arsenic is increasingly being found in drinking water, posing cancer risks, according to Florida researchers.
  • Hotspots in the U.S. include the Southwest, New England, the Upper Midwest, and Southern Texas.
  • Arsenic, a naturally occurring substance, can dissolve into groundwater and contaminate wells.
  • Chronic exposure causes DNA damage and weakened immune systems.
  • Between 2017-2019, 31 states exceeded the legal arsenic limit of 10 ppb in their drinking water.
  • The Florida scientists called for urgen action to address a "global public health issue."
Map of arsenic-risk areas worldwide. Scientists are raising alarms over dangerous levels of the carcinogenic toxin increasingly being found in drinking water.  Eishiya/Wikimedia

A new report raises concerns about dangerous levels of arsenic in drinking water across parts of the United States. Arsenic, a known carcinogen, is increasingly being found in tap water and groundwater wells, according to researchers at Florida International University. The toxic metal, naturally present in soil and rock in certain regions, can dissolve into groundwater that ends up in wells, contaminating drinking water supplies.

“Since many countries are still affected by high levels of arsenic, we believe arsenic exposure is a global public health issue that requires urgent action,” the Florida scientists said in their study.

Arsenic exposure through contaminated water and food over time can lead to DNA damage, impaired cell signaling, and a weakened immune system, creating an environment ripe for cancer growth. Studies have also linked arsenic to the formation of cancer stem cells.

“Preventing chronic arsenic exposure is critical to reducing the burden of arsenic-related health effects,” the researchers warned.

Certain parts of the U.S. are at higher risk due to naturally occurring arsenic deposits. These include the Southwest, with hotspots in Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico, according to the Florida study. Other areas of risk include New England, the Upper Midwest, and Southern Texas.

Between 2017-2019, 31 states had arsenic levels in drinking water exceeding the EPA’s legal limit of 10 parts per billion (ppb), according to the Environmental Working Group. Bottled water brands have also been found to contain unsafe arsenic levels.

In addition to cancer risks, arsenic can also cause other health problems with long-term exposure. Symptoms such as stomach pain, nausea, and diarrhea can occur when arsenic is consumed in high doses through contaminated drinking water. While more research will be needed to understand arsenic’s full health impacts, scientists agree urgent action is needed to address what the Florida study calls a “global public health issue.”