Southwest Environment

Stories written by University of Arizona students

Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science
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Arsenic causes lung problems

By Brooke Hamilton

Arsenic is not uncommon in Arizona soils, and according to Clark Lantz, a professor of Cellular and Molecular Medicine at the University of Arizona, we normally filter it out of our water supply. He studies what arsenic does to the pulmonary system – the lungs and muscles used for breathing.

Specifically, he looks at what happens to the pulmonary system development of mice when their mothers are exposed to it before and during pregnancy and they continue to be exposed to it after they're born. The research is testing the idea that exposure to arsenic in utero and in early childhood is a cause of lung problems later on in life.

So far, they have shown that there is a change in pulmonary function in the animals. Basically, those who have been exposed to arsenic while developing have airways that constrict more readily than those of the normal population.

This has even been supported in humans from a town in Chile where there were high arsenic concentrations in their water in the 1950s and ‘60s and later. Once the problem was discovered, the arsenic was removed. People who were born in the period of high arsenic concentrations had higher incidences of lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease later in life, and these problems occurred earlier in life than would be expected.

However, this study looked at people exposed to arsenic at much higher levels of arsenic that is allowed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The major source of arsenic contamination in Arizona isn't from water, though, it's from dust in the air. Lantz is now using data from the Atmospheric Sciences study at the mine tailing site at Dewey Humboldt to get a better idea of what levels of arsenic in the air he should use for his experiments on mice. This will give him a better idea of the similarities and differences of exposure to arsenic in water and in air.

If you are drinking out of public water, you don't have to worry about arsenic in your water because it's already filtered. If you drink out of a private well, you should get your water tested regularly, even if you don't live close to a mine. To minimize the hazards of inhaling arsenic if you live close to a mine site, Lantz recommends keeping air conditioning and heating filters clean, keeping your house closed up on windy days, cleaning up dust in the house promptly and avoid going outside on windy days. Children are especially vulnerable. If the work of Maier and her team is successful however, the risks of arsenic exposure from mines in the Southwest could drastically diminish and that is one of the ultimate goals.     

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