The Effects of Too Much Arsenic in the Diet

Even at low-level exposure, arsenic is not just a class I carcinogen, but may also impair our immune function and increase our risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

When people hear about arsenic, they think of it as an acute poison, and, indeed, a tiny amount—a hundred milligrams, about one-tenth the weight of a paperclip—could kill you in an hour. But, there is also chronic arsenic poisoning, where even a dose 10,000 times as small can be harmful if you’re exposed day-after-day for years at a time as I discuss in my video The Effects of Too Much Arsenic in the Diet. Chief among the concerns is cancer.

Arsenic is classified as a class I carcinogen, which is the highest level and includes things known to cause cancer in humans. Other class I carcinogens are asbestos, cigarette smoke, formaldehyde, plutonium, and processed meat (the consumption of bacon, ham, hot dogs, deli meat, and the like). So, arsenic is pretty bad, to say the least, implicated in tens of thousands—or even hundreds of thousands—of cancer cases worldwide every year.

Of course, cancer is our number-two killer. What about heart disease, our leading cause of death? “Long-term exposure to low to moderate arsenic levels was associated with cardiovascular disease incidence and mortality,” meaning heart attacks and strokes.

Arsenic is also considered an immunotoxicant, meaning it’s toxic to our immune system. How do we know that? There’s a virus called varicella, which is what causes chickenpox—the first time we get it. Our immune system is able to stamp it down but not stamp it out. The virus retreats into our nerve cells where it lies in wait for our immune function to dip. And, when it does, the virus re-emerges and causes a disease called shingles. We’ve all been exposed to the virus, but only about one in three of us will get shingles because our immune system is able to keep it at bay. However, the virus can slip its muzzle as we get older or immunosuppressed, for instance, if we’re given arsenic chemotherapy. Shingles is a common side effect, because the arsenic drugs not only kill the cancer but also some of our immune cells, too. That’s at high doses, though. Might even low doses of arsenic, like the kind we’re exposed to in our daily diet, impact our immune function? Researchers tested the levels of arsenic in the urine of thousands of Americans, along with their levels of anti-virus antibodies, and, indeed, they found that the more arsenic the subjects had flowing through their bodies, the lower their defenses.

And, if you’re pregnant, arsenic can pass to your baby, possibly increasing the risk of miscarriage or infant mortality, and “may affect an infant’s immune development and susceptibility to infections early in life.” Indeed, a study out of New Hampshire on infant infections in relation to prenatal arsenic exposure found that the more arsenic the mom was exposed to during pregnancy, the higher the baby’s risk of infection during infancy. However, “it’s unknown whether arsenic-induced epigenetic changes are transgenerational”—that is, whether changes in gene expression can impact the health of not only your own children but your grandchildren as well. Regardless, arsenic exposure isn’t good for mom’s own health, as it is associated with increasing blood pressure.

Hold on. If arsenic suppresses immune system function, then, as a silver lining, would we, for example, have fewer allergies, which is a kind of over-reaction of the immune system? Apparently not. Those with higher arsenic levels tend to have higher rates of food allergies, tend not to sleep as well, and tend not to feel as well. When people were asked how they would rate their health, those reporting “excellent” or “very good” tended to have lower levels of arsenic, compared to those who reported their general health condition as “good,” “fair,” or “poor,” who tended to have higher arsenic levels.

What about diabetes? You can see the results of two dozen population studies on arsenic exposure and confirmed diabetes at 4:07 in my video. Any result above one suggests increased risk for diabetes, and any result below one suggests lower risk. The findings? “Our results support an association between ingested arsenic and DM [diabetes] in humans.” Population studies can’t prove cause and effect, though. “While it would be nice to demonstrate a cause and effect relationship…is it necessary?”

We know arsenic is a carcinogen. We know it causes cancer. What more do we need to take steps to decrease our exposure?

Where is arsenic found in our diet? See my videos Where Does the Arsenic in Chicken Come From?  and Where Does the Arsenic in Rice, Mushrooms, and Wine Come From?.

 Ready for a deep dive into the rice issue? Check out:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:




Adult Exposure to Lead

“Children in approximately 4 million households in the United States are being exposed to high levels of lead.” As I discuss in my video The Effects of Low-Level Lead Exposure in Adults, “Despite the dramatic decline in children’s blood-lead concentrations over the decades, lead toxicity remains a major public health problem”—and not just for children. Yes, lead is “a devastating neurotoxin,” with learning disabilities and attention deficits in children beginning around blood lead levels of 10 mg/dL, which is when you start seeing high blood pressure and nerve damage in adults, as you can see at 0:41 in my video. But, the blood levels in American adults these days are down around 1 mg/dL, not 10 mg/dL, unless you work or play in an indoor firing range, where the lead levels in the air are so high that more than half of recreational target shooters have levels over 10 mg/dL or even 25 mg/dL.

In fact, even open-air outdoor ranges can be a problem. Spending just two days a month at such a range may quadruple blood lead levels and push them up into the danger zone. What if you don’t use firearms yourself but live in a house with someone who does? The lead levels can be so high that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises those who go to shooting ranges to take “measures to prevent take-home exposure including showering and changing into clean clothes after shooting…, storing clean clothes in a separate bin from contaminated clothing, laundering of non disposable outer protective clothing…and leaving at the range shoes worn inside the firing range,” among other actions. Even if none of that applies and your blood levels are under 10 mg/dL, there is still some evidence of increased risk of hand tremors, high blood pressure, kidney damage, and other issues, as you can see at 1:44 in my video. But what if you’re down around a blood lead level of 1 mg/dL, like most people?

“Blood lead levels in the range currently considered acceptable are associated with increased prevalence of gout,” a painful arthritis. In fact, researchers found that blood levels as low as approximately 1.2 mg/dL, which is close to the current American average, can be associated with increased prevalence of gout. So, this means that “very low levels of lead may still be associated with health risks,” suggesting “there is no such thing as a ‘safe’ level of exposure to lead.”

Where is the lead even coming from? Lead only circulates in the body for about a month, so if you have lead in your bloodstream, it’s from some ongoing exposure. Most adults don’t eat peeling paint chips, though, and autos aren’t fueled by leaded gas anymore. There are specific foods, supplements, and cosmetics that are contaminated with lead (and I have videos on all those topics), but for most adults, the source of ongoing lead exposure is from our own skeleton. I just mentioned that lead only circulates in the body for about a month. Well, where does it go after that? It can get deposited in our bones. “More than 90% of the total body lead content resides in the bone, where the half-life is decades long,” not just a month. So, half or more of the lead in our blood represents lead from past exposures just now leaching out of our bones back into our bloodstream, and this “gradual release of lead from the bone serves as a persistent source of toxicity long after cessation of external exposure,” that is, long after leaded gasoline was removed from the pumps for those of us that who were around back before the 1980s.

So, the answer to where the lead comes from is like Pogo’s We’ve met the enemy and he is us or that classic horror movie scene where the call is coming from inside the house.

The amount of lead in our bones can actually be measured, and research shows higher levels are associated with some of our leading causes of death and disability, from tooth decay and miscarriages to cognitive decline and cataracts. “Much of the lead found in adults today was deposited decades ago. Thus, regulations enacted in the 1970s were too late” for many of us, but at least things are going in the right direction now. The “dramatic societal decreases” in blood lead in the United States since the 1970s have been associated with a four- to five-point increase in the average IQs of American adults. Given that, a “particularly provocative question is whether the whole country suffered brain damage prior to the 1980 decreases in blood lead. Was ‘the best generation’ really the brain damaged generation?”

I’m such a sucker for science documentaries, and my favorite episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey was The Clean Room, which dealt with this very issue. Trivia: Carl Sagan was my next-door neighbor when I was at Cornell!

If you want to find out How the Leaded Gas Industry Got Away with It, check out that video. How the Lead Paint Industry Got Away with It is similarly scandalous. Lead in Drinking Water offers the modern-day tale of what happened in Flint, Michigan, and “Normal” Blood Lead Levels Can Be Toxic explores the impacts on childhood development.

I close out this extended video series on lead with information on what we can do about it:

Interested in learning more about lead being absorbed and released in our bones, and how calcium supplements may affect that process? See The Rise in Blood Lead Levels at Pregnancy and Menopause and Should Pregnant Women Take Calcium Supplements to Lower Lead Levels?.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:


Are the BPA-Free Plastics Like Tritan Safe?

Do BPA-free plastics such as Tritan, have human hormone-disrupting effects? And what about BPS and BPF?

Recent human studies indicate that exposure to the plastics chemical BPA may be associated with infertility, miscarriage, premature delivery, reduced male sexual function, polycystic ovaries, altered thyroid and immune function, diabetes, heart disease, and more. Yet, “[a]s recently as March 2012, FDA stated that low levels of BPA in food are considered safe.” However, just months later, to its credit, the agency banned the use of BPA plastics in baby bottles and sippy cups. Regulators standing up to industry? Maybe I shouldn’t be so cynical! But, wait. The ban was at the behest of the plastics industry. It had already stopped using BPA in baby bottles so it was their idea to ban it.

The industry had switched from BPA to similar compounds like BPF and BPS. So, our diets now contain everything from BPA to BPZ, and the majority of us have these new chemicals in our bodies as well. Are they any safer?

As I discuss in my video Are the BPA-Free Alternatives Safe?, based on the similarities of their chemical structures, they are all predicted to affect testosterone production and estrogen receptor activity, as you can see at 1:40 in my video. However, they were only recently put to the test.

As you can see at 1:50 in my video, we’ve known BPA significantly suppresses testosterone production, and, from “the first report describing BPS and BPF adverse effects on physiologic function in humans,” we know those compounds do, too. Well, kind of. The experiments were performed on the testicles of aborted human fetuses. But, the bottom line is that BPS and BPF seem to have “antiandrogenic anti-male hormone effects that are similar to those of BPA.” So when you’re assured you shouldn’t worry because your sales slip is BPA-free, the thermal paper may just contain BPS instead. What’s more, BPS receipts may contain up to 40 percent more BPS than they would have contained BPA. So BPA-free could be even worse. In fact, all BPA-replacement products tested to date released “chemicals having reliably detectable EA,” estrogenic activity.

This includes Tritan, which is specifically marketed as being estrogen-activity-free. As you can see at 3:06 in my video, however, researchers dripped an extract of Tritan on human breast cancer cells in a petri dish, and it accelerated their growth. This estrogenic effect was successfully abolished by an estrogen blocker, reinforcing it was an estrogen effect. Now, the accelerated growth of the cancer cells from the Tritan extract occurred after the plastic was exposed to the stressed state of simulated sunlight. Only one out of three Tritan products showed estrogen activity in an unstressed state, for instance when they weren’t exposed to microwaving, heat, or UV rays. “Because there would be no value in trading one health hazard for another, we should urgently focus on the human health risk assessment of BPA substitutes.”

In the meanwhile, there are steps we can take to limit our exposure. We can reduce our use of polycarbonate plastics, which are usually labeled with recycle codes three or seven, and we can opt for fresh and frozen foods over canned goods, especially when it comes to tuna and condensed soups. Canned fruit consumption doesn’t seem to matter, but weekly canned vegetable consumption has been associated with increased BPA exposure. If you do use plastics, don’t microwave them, put them in the dishwasher, leave them in the sun or a hot car, or use once they’re scratched. But using glass, ceramic, or stainless steel containers is probably best.

For more on BPA, check out my videos:

Unfortunately, BPA isn’t the only plastics chemical that may have adverse health effects. See:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations: