Arsenic has been linked to cancer, cardiovascular disease and cognitive deficits. A new study confirms that even low exposure to the toxic element in drinking water can impair lung function. And smoking makes the damage worse.
The study was part of a long-term project conducted in Bangladesh, where nearly half the population - some 77 million people - live in areas where groundwater wells contain harmful amounts of arsenic.
Over five years, researchers tested the lung function of 950 individuals who came to their clinic with respiratory symptoms. Then, they correlated that with the patients' arsenic levels. The results, reported in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, show that the severity of arsenic's effects depend on the dose.
Patients exposed to less than twice the dose considered safe had no detectable arsenic-related loss of function. Those with up to 10 times the safe dose showed just a slight decrease in their breathing function. However, patients exposed to arsenic levels higher than that had a significant loss of lung function - comparable to decades of smoking tobacco - putting them at increased risk of developing serious respiratory disease.