What is arsenic?
There are two main types of naturally occurring arsenic, a substance found in the Earth’s crust. These are inorganic arsenic and organic arsenic. Inorganic arsenic is a substance found in minerals, rocks and mine tailings. Organic arsenic is present in seawater and can be found in fish and shellfish, and is sometimes called ‘fish arsenic’. Organic arsenic is less harmful than inorganic arsenic.
Arsenic has also been used in manmade pesticides to kill insects which attack timber, fruit, vegetables and animals.
In some situations, arsenic causes ill-health in people.
How does arsenic enter the body?
Small amounts of arsenic are normally taken into the body each day from the low levels of arsenic that are naturally present in soil, water, air and food. It can also enter the body when a person swallows soil or dust. Arsenic is not absorbed very well through the skin.
If you live in Victoria, you are unlikely to come into contact with arsenic unless you live near a historic goldmining area and are exposed to mine tailings – that is, mining waste.
How does arsenic leave the body?
Arsenic does not usually accumulate (build up) in the body. It leaves the body in a few different ways.
- Most of the arsenic swallowed passes through the body in faeces (poo).
- Most arsenic absorbed by the body is passed out in urine.
- Some of the arsenic is deposited inside hair and nails, and leaves the body as hair and nails grow.
Health effects of arsenic
The effects of arsenic on health depend on its form and the total amount taken in by the body over time.
Large amounts of arsenic taken over a short time can cause severe health effects, including stomach ache, nausea, vomiting, damage to blood cells and nerves, or even death.
Medium amounts of arsenic taken in over a longer time may cause skin changes, damage to major body organs and some types of cancer.
Small amounts of arsenic can be taken in over long periods of time without any obvious health effects.
Where can you get more information?
For advice on managing mine tailings on your property or in your local area, call:
Also see Are you living in an area with mine tailings? Arsenic and health (publication 1706)
For advice about grazing stock on arsenic-containing land, or on current goldmining activities, contact Agriculture Victoria (Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources) on 136 186.