How Does Arsenic Kill?

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Arsenic deaths most often result from acute poisoning and involve heart failure due to hypovolemic shock. Hypovolemic shock consists of a severe loss of blood and fluids, resulting in a decrease in cardiovascular function.

Arsenic is a naturally occurring chemical element that also forms compounds with other elements, such as oxygen, potassium, sodium and sulfur. Arsenic binds easily to red blood cells, allowing for its distribution throughout the body. In the human body, arsenic disrupts the synthesis of ATP, which is vital in nearly every cellular pathway; without ATP, multiple organ systems fail.

Arsenic damages capillaries. Victims of arsenic poisoning often exhibit lesions in the gastrointestinal tract. These lesions lead to symptoms such as thirst, bloody diarrhea, shallow pulse and general weakness. Internal blood loss eventually causes the heart to fail.

Arsenic exposure occurs via a number of routes. Well water containing arsenic salts is a source of chronic poisoning, as is arsenic exposure through food. Some grains, such as rice, easily accumulate arsenic if the element is present in soil. Certain seafood also absorbs arsenic. Use of arsenic to treat and preserve wood presents a potential for exposure, particularly when that wood is burned in an enclosed area. Arsenic may also be present in some medications, especially non-traditional or homeopathic varieties.