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A Guide to Arsenic Water Contamination and Testing


When you think of a substance present in air, water, soil and even plants and animals, your mind probably doesn’t jump straight to arsenic. However, the truth is that this chemical element is all around us. Although some forms of arsenic are less toxic than others, this still isn’t a substance you’d want in your drinking water.

Here’s what to know about arsenic, what it does to your water quality and how water testing helps solve arsenic problems.

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Arsenic Poisoning

Arsenic has a bad reputation — one it’s earned by causing a variety of problems. Here’s a closer look:

Types of Arsenic

There are two basic types of arsenic: organic and inorganic compounds.

  • Organic compounds refers to arsenic combined with elements other than carbon; these aren’t currently linked to cancer and are generally nontoxic. They are most often found in seafood.
  • Inorganic compounds refers to arsenic combined with elements other than carbon; these are recognized as cancer-causing elements and are often highly toxic. They can be found in tobacco products, industrial chemicals, meat and drinking water.

What is Arsenic Poisoning?

Arsenic poisoning, also known as “arsenicosis,” occurs when you ingest or inhale more arsenic than can be eliminated through urine or sweat. This excess arsenic is treated the same way as phosphate — a critical element in nerve function, muscle contraction and more — inside your body. Although arsenic exposure can occur when living near industrial sites, breathing in areas that have been treated with pesticides or eating contaminated food, drinking water is among the most common sources of inorganic arsenic.

Now that you know why arsenic has earned its reputation, let’s find out how you can identify its presence in your own water supply.


Arsenic in Water

What Causes Arsenic in Water?

Because arsenic exists naturally in the environment, it can enter water supplies in a variety of ways. These include:

  • Agricultural or industrial runoff
  • Atmospheric deposits
  • Erosion of natural arsenic deposits in the earth

In some areas, groundwater naturally contains arsenic. This is especially common in the western United States but is less common throughout Canada.

What Are the Signs of Arsenic in Water?

One of the reasons arsenic can become dangerous is that it’s colorless, tasteless and odorless. Because of this invisibility, you may not have any specific reason to suspect the presence of arsenic in your drinking water. To further complicate matters, arsenic doesn’t cause mineral buildup, stains or other noticeable impacts to your fixtures and water-using appliances, meaning it’s more difficult to catch than hard water or other issues.

What Are the Side Effects of Arsenic in Water?

The side effects of drinking arsenic-contaminated water over a short period can include nausea, vomiting and other gastrointestinal discomforts. You might also notice skin discoloration depending on the amount of arsenic ingested.

Over a longer period of time, side effects can become more severe. Eventually, long-term arsenic exposure could cause cancers of the lungs, skin, kidneys, prostate and more.

Does All Tap Water Have Arsenic?

Arsenic is not necessarily present in all tap water; for example, arsenic is more likely to be found in drilled wells than in other water supply types.* However, this carcinogen has been found in drinking water in all 50 U.S. states. Levels in Canada are typically low, though concentrations in some areas can be higher.

Is it Safe to Shower in Water With Arsenic?

Here’s some good news: You’re usually safe to shower, bathe or clean with water that may be contaminated with arsenic. Although arsenic exposure has been linked to skin cancer, arsenic isn’t easily absorbed by the skin; instead, cancer linked to arsenic is generally caused by long-term inhalation or ingestion.


Arsenic Water Testing

Arsenic is virtually impossible to detect on your own. Here’s what you need to know about arsenic water testing — the only reliable way to know for sure whether this substance is in your drinking water:

What Are Arsenic Water Tests?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Guidelines for Canadian Water Quality set standards for water safety, including rules about the amount of arsenic allowed in public water supplies. Arsenic tests conducted at water facilities help utility companies monitor water quality and adhere to these standards.

However, these tests can’t determine if arsenic enters the water supply after leaving the main facility, nor can they help protect private wells. For this reason, it’s smart for both city and well water users to know how at-home water tests work.

How to Test For Arsenic in Your Water

There are two types of at-home tests for arsenic in water: those you perform on your own, and those performed by a water expert. DIY water test kits aren’t always accurate or easy to use — which is why many people rely on professional water tests to help identify the presence of potential contaminants. Some substances, like arsenic or lead, typically require your water sample to be sent to a laboratory (like Culligan’s IL EPA-certified lab) for further testing.

Of course, you don’t have to stop at arsenic testing. Many expert water tests can also tell you whether your water may be:

  • Safe to drink
  • Safe to bathe and clean with
  • Harming your pipes
  • Shortening the lifespan of your water-using appliances
  • Responsible for stains on faucets, bathtubs and shower doors
  • Causing skin irritation or hair dryness


What is the Safe Limit For Arsenic in Drinking Water?

The generally accepted limit for arsenic in drinking water is 10 parts per billion (ppb), or 0.010 milligrams per liter. Past this amount, water utility companies are required to take action that will identify and fix the problem.

It’s relevant to note that this safe limit is actually a newer guideline. The original limit for arsenic in drinking water was 50 ppb, suggesting entities like the EPA are actively studying arsenic, its potential dangers and the chances that North Americans could come into contact with this known carcinogen.


Arsenic Water Solutions

Although it might seem intimidating to hear that you could have arsenic in your drinking water, there’s no need to panic. Instead, brush up on these important facts about arsenic water solutions:

Myths About Removing Arsenic From Water

If you watch survivalist TV shows, you may think boiling water is the best way to remove any impurities or contaminants. While that might work for certain bacteria and viruses, it actually slightly increases the potency of arsenic in water.

Similarly, if you’re hoping chlorine disinfection can get rid of arsenic, you’re sure to be disappointed. Chlorine doesn’t reduce or eliminate the presence of arsenic in your water supply; in fact, it can cause a handful of its own problems.

Arsenic Water Filters

The best, most reliable and most effective way to deal with arsenic in your water is to find a water filtration system for your home. These systems come in many different configurations, so it’s best to break them down like this:

  • Point-of-use: An under sink reverse osmosis system is called a point-of-use system. That’s because these filters address arsenic and other potential contaminants at the specific tap where they are installed.* For this reason, they aren’t typically a standalone choice for arsenic, as it doesn’t address other taps, showers or your washing machine.
  • Point-of-entry: A point-of-entry filtration system is installed where water lines enter your house. Also called whole-home systems, these filters can reduce the amount of arsenic in water throughout your home. Look for a system specifically designed to address arsenic.


Is There an Arsenic Water Filter Pitcher?

Although pitcher filters may seem like a fast, simple solution to any water problem you might face, the truth is that they aren’t generally as comprehensive in what they can filter as under-sink or whole-home systems. Designs differ between models, which means you can’t always be sure that a water filter pitcher will address certain contaminants like arsenic. Additionally, these filters can be difficult to use when you need a lot of water all at once — for example, when cooking.


Test Your Water For Arsenic

Arsenic is invisible to the naked eye and has been linked to multiple health issues, including cancer. This combination means you might be up against a problem you can’t see, smell, taste or manage on your own.

Luckily, a water test can tell you whether arsenic is present in your water and, if so, in what amount. Even if arsenic levels exceed safe limits, you aren’t without options; point-of-use and point-of-entry water filtration systems can help reduce the amount of arsenic and other contaminants in your water supply.

Get started by scheduling a free, in-home water test today.

*Contaminants may not be present in your water.

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