Dermatologic arsenic effects

Question: Hello, I was referred to your website by a water purification company in my home state of Michigan. I have a private well and very high arsenic levels in the raw and soft water. I use an RO for my drinking water and have no arsenic detected in it. My softener is a good quality two-tank system and is still functioning adequately, as far as softness, though it’s about 13 years old. We do have iron in the raw water, so the resin bed is probably near the end of its life—especially with respect to arsenic removal. This may explain why the arsenic level is still high in the soft water but absent in the RO? I have many health issues and have been exposed to high amounts of chemicals that have contributed to, and probably caused, some of my ill health. I’m concerned about the dermatologic and inhalation effects of bathing and showering with the arsenic-laden water. Most information that I’ve seen from my state DEQ and local health department says that this is not a concern. I’ve heard that more studies are starting to show that this may not be true.  Do you know of any information/studies relating to these issues? I’m considering the purchase of an arsenic removal system (iron oxide composite) and wonder if it’s warranted and also if these types of system are the most current technology that is NSF approved?  

Kim Lockard
Lapeer, Mich.

Answer: To our knowledge, there’s no evidence of arsenic absorption through the skin significant enough to warrant any concern. And we don’t believe inhalation of arsenic during showering and bathing activities poses much of a risk. In both cases, the level of arsenic would have to be so acute it would be extremely unlikely to be found in any typical residential exposure. Also, under normal conditions—i.e., a non-chlorinated water supply, a softener won’t necessarily remove arsenic in all its forms. Neither will RO. If you don’t already have it, you should consider installing a chlorination or other oxidizing system prior to the softener and RO to facilitate better arsenic removal by converting the arsenic to an ionic form more easily adsorbed. If it makes you more comfortable (and since most studies are done on healthy individuals and the effects on sensitive populations may not be fully researched), you could have the resin in your system replaced by a qualified water treatment professional. The RO, which usually includes sediment and/or activated carbon filtration, will remove the chlorine, arsenic and a variety of other heavy metals and other contaminants to levels considered “purified.” In other words, using your RO for drinking should be the only treatment you require, as long as you’re operating on a cOffering a little more detail—use of a softener or whole-house filtration system at the water supply’s point of entry to your home will pre-treat the water, remove additional contaminants and extend the life of RO system components. If the arsenic level in treated water from the softener is higher than that prior to softening, it likely means your resin is either no longer functioning properly or competing contaminants are being preferred by the ion exchange (or softening) resin, causing “dumping” of the arsenic. Since you suggest the softener is an older twin-tank model, again, you may want to simply replace the resin. There also are newer media emerging that specialize in arsenic removal, including those from AdEdge (Severn Trent Services’ Sorb 33), Bayer (Bayoxide E33), Culligan (GFH) and Hydroglobe (MetSorb). AdEdge has a marketing agreement with Severn Trent, which is in a partnership with Bayer; and Bayer also has a subsidiary that makes and markets resin, Sybron Chemicals. Culligan markets GFH—granular ferric hydroxide—through an agreement with a German company, GEH Wasserchemie GmbH. The newest, Hydroglobe is developing its product in conjunction with Dow Chemical, which also makes and markets resin as well as RO membranes through its Liquid Separations Division.

For additional information on arsenic related to your concerns, see the following online references:

  • Post, G., “Dermal Absorption of Inorganic Arsenic from Water,” Environmental Assessment and Risk Analysis Element, White Paper Summary, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Science, Research and Technology, January 2003:
  • Commission on Life Sciences, “Disposition of Inorganic Arsenic,” Chapter 5, Arsenic in Drinking Water, National Academies Press, 1999:
  • Environmental Health Criteria, “Arsenic,” EHC 18, 1981, from IPCS International Programme on Chemical Safety:
  • System of Monitoring the Environmental Impact on Population Health, “Importance of the Route of Exposure to Selected Inorganic Substances for the Population of the Czech Republic,” National Institute of Public Health, Prague, Czech Republic, 2002:
  • Dyro, F.M., “Neurotoxicology: Arsenic,” eMedicine, Updated – May 2002:
  • Integrated Risk Information System, “Arsenic, inorganic (CASRN 7440-38-2),” IRIS, Environmental Protection Agency, Updated – February 2004:

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