Washington: A new study has revealed that exposure to low to moderate amounts of arsenic in drinking water can impair lung function.
Doses of about 120 parts per billion of arsenic in well water-about 12 times the dose generally considered safe-produced lung damage comparable to decades of smoking tobacco. Smoking, especially by males, made arsenic-related damage even worse.
Study`s senior author, Habibul Ahsan, MD, MMedSc, Director of the Center for Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention at the University of Chicago Medicine, said that restrictive lung defects, such as we saw in those exposed to well-water arsenic, are usually progressive and irreversible.
He said that they can lead over time to serious lung disease.
The study has added to a growing list of arsenic-related health problems that includes skin, bladder and lung cancers, cardiovascular disease, cognitive deficits and premature death.
Less is known about exposure to elevated arsenic levels from well water or foods in other parts of the world, including regions in Mexico and the United States.
Researchers have recently begun to re-examine foods, such as rice syrup and apple juice, that contain more arsenic than the 10 parts per billion that is allowed in U.S. drinking water.
The study, coordinated by Ahsan and co-author Faruque Parvez, DrPH, of Columbia University, was the next step in the Health Effects of Arsenic Longitudinal Study (HEALS), a long-term Bangladesh-based project, begun in 2000 and expanded in 2006.
The HEALS team follows about 20,000 people in Araihazar, a region of central Bangladesh, about 20 miles east of the capital, Dhaka, with a wide range of arsenic levels in drinking-water wells. Between 2005 and 2010, the researchers evaluated 950 individuals who reported respiratory symptoms such as cough and shortness of breath to HEALS clinic doctors. The researchers tested each patient`s lung function and documented his or her arsenic levels.
They divided the patients into three groups according to arsenic exposure, using two related measures: how much arsenic was in their drinking water and how much was in their urine.
Then, local physicians trained by pulmonologist Christopher Olopade, MD, of the University of Chicago, rigorously measured each patient`s lung function using a spirometer with a focus on two standard lung-function tests: forced expiratory flow (FEV1, the amount of air a person can expel in one second) and forced vital capacity (FVC, the total volume of air exhaled after fully filling the lungs).
The study has been published online in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.