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Postgrad Med J 79:391-396 doi:10.1136/pmj.79.933.391
  • Review

Acute and chronic arsenic toxicity

  1. R N Ratnaike
  1. Correspondence to:
 Professor Ranjit N Ratnaike, Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Woodville, South Australia 5011, Australia;
 ranjit.ratnaike{at}adelaide.edu.au
  • Received 14 November 2002
  • Accepted 31 March 2003

Abstract

Arsenic toxicity is a global health problem affecting many millions of people. Contamination is caused by arsenic from natural geological sources leaching into aquifers, contaminating drinking water and may also occur from mining and other industrial processes. Arsenic is present as a contaminant in many traditional remedies. Arsenic trioxide is now used to treat acute promyelocytic leukaemia. Absorption occurs predominantly from ingestion from the small intestine, though minimal absorption occurs from skin contact and inhalation. Arsenic exerts its toxicity by inactivating up to 200 enzymes, especially those involved in cellular energy pathways and DNA synthesis and repair. Acute arsenic poisoning is associated initially with nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and severe diarrhoea. Encephalopathy and peripheral neuropathy are reported. Chronic arsenic toxicity results in multisystem disease. Arsenic is a well documented human carcinogen affecting numerous organs. There are no evidence based treatment regimens to treat chronic arsenic poisoning but antioxidants have been advocated, though benefit is not proven. The focus of management is to reduce arsenic ingestion from drinking water and there is increasing emphasis on using alternative supplies of water.

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