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arsenic toxicity

One of the most common questions my patients ask is if they have mercury toxicity. But, I’ve found that though some have traces of mercury by urine or blood testing, few have dangerously high mercury levels in their body. By far the most common toxic metal, and the most dangerous that I’ve found is my patients is arsenic. Like mercury, arsenic gets into the body a little at a time entering mostly in the food we eat.

Arsenic occurs organically in nature in rocks, volcanic ash, arsenic-containing minerals and ores, and dissolved in groundwater. From these sources, arsenic finds its way into our food supply and drinking water. It is present in farm soil and the air we breathe. Also, many industrial practices use inorganic arsenic, including in food production, so it’s crept into the environment without our knowing it, and seeps into our food in ever greater amounts, which is why chronic arsenic toxicity is so troubling.

Arsenic Hides Out in Food

Arsenic is readily absorbed by plants from soil and water. It’s mainly concentrated in leafy vegetables, rice, apples, and grapes. Organic arsenic also gets in the body from eating fish, seaweed, and shellfish. Inorganic arsenic is found in many synthetic products, poisons, and industrial food production practices. Arsenic is used in poultry feed to improve flesh firmness and color. Organically raised chickens are required to be arsenic free.

Recent concern has focused on high levels of arsenic found in fruits and vegetables, nutritional supplements, apple and grape juice, and in organic brown rice – all products used in baby foods. Researchers found arsenic just about everywhere, but finding such high levels in American farmed rice is alarming.

Why Arsenic Is So Dangerous

The body can excrete low-level arsenic exposure through the kidneys in urine. But long-term exposure, especially when starting in infancy, builds up in tissue. Even trace amounts can reduce the immune response to vaccines, increase susceptibility to common respiratory infections like the flu, and ignite the inflammatory response considered an underlying cause of nearly all diseases.

Diseases Linked to Arsenic Toxicity:

  • Cancer
  • Liver disease
  • Diabetes
  • Nervous system complications
  • Gastrointestinal conditions
  • Immune system disruption

Arsenic is classified by the WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a Group 1 carcinogen, along with 118 other substances known to cause cancer in humans. It is particularly troubling because there is a strong link to arsenic and breast cancer, one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers.

Experts agree, arsenic is a serious public health risk. High levels can kill. But even moderate concentrations in the body play a role in chronic disease. At the molecular level, arsenic disrupts the body’s immune system resulting in vulnerability to a wide range of illness, including cancer. Hidden arsenic in your body also increases your vulnerability to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and liver disease.

At low doses, arsenic doesn’t overwhelm body systems. However, over time it causes insidious damage to cells. Like mercury, unless you are directly exposed to extremely high levels, which can kill you, arsenic toxicity is subtle.

Symptoms of Chronic Arsenic Toxicity:

  • Thickening of skin
  • Discoloration of skin
  • Small “corns” or “warts” on the palms, soles, and torso
  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Decreased production of red and white blood cells
  • Abnormal heart rhythm
  • Damage to blood vessels
  • Numbness in hands and feet
  • Partial paralysis
  • Blindness
  • Garlic odor of breath
  • Seizures

Because arsenic toxicity increases susceptibility to disease and makes all illnesses worse, you cannot diagnose it by symptoms alone. You need laboratory testing to determine if you have too much arsenic in your body.

Get Your Arsenic Levels Tested

There are three ways to check for heavy metals. Hair analysis is the easiest and least expensive method, but blood and urine testing are more accurate. A blood sample is taken at your doctor’s office or in a laboratory. Your doctor can order tests for you, or you can order your own online from PersonaLabs, DirectLabs, or AnyLabTest. Both LabCorp and Quest offer screening tests for heavy metals including mercury, lead, and arsenic.

If you’re squeamish about getting your arm pricked for the blood sample, a random urine sample will work too.

If your arsenic level is high in hair, blood, or random urine, you need a special urine test that separates arsenic into organic and inorganic types. Inorganic arsenic is responsible for most symptoms and signs of arsenic toxicity.

The Arsenic Detox

In my practice, I’ve managed to help patients eliminate arsenic. But, it takes time. Allow six months to one year to lower levels into the safe zone, and longer to get them close to zero. Intravenous therapies are faster, but riskier.

Treatments for Arsenic Toxicity:

  • Bowel irrigation/colonics help flush out traces of arsenic, and during chelation colonics they prevent arsenic from being absorbed from the gut back into the rest of the body. It is advisable to have colonic therapy from a qualified specialist during chelation for heavy metals.
  • Blood transfusions are used for acute arsenic poisoning and seriously high chronic arsenic toxicity replacing toxic blood for new blood can be life saving.
  • Intravenous chelation therapy uses dimercaptosuccinic acid (DMSA) or dimercaprol (BAL) to help isolate arsenic from blood proteins and remove it from the body. IV chelation is very useful, but can be hard on the kidneys and liver, so it’s not for everyone.
  • DMSA oral chelation therapy is useful in removing arsenic but requires months before it is effective, and it may have adverse effects. DMSA is FDA approved for chelating organic and inorganic heavy metals. DMSA can be made into rectal suppositories by a compounding pharmacy. Rectal absorption is more efficient than taking DMSA by mouth.
  • Nutritional supplements have mild chelating effects and are useful as adjunctive therapy to oral or intravenous chelation, but are usually not sufficient by themselves.

Chelating agents bind with heavy metals to eliminate them out of your body in urine and stool. All synthetic chelating drugs are dangerous if used incorrectly. Chelation is a complex science. Always use synthetic chelating agents under the supervision of a qualified doctor.

Many common natural compounds and nutrients are useful in heavy metal detox as chelation helpers. For low levels of arsenic toxicity, natural chelators are useful over time. For chronic arsenic toxicity, I recommend that my patients use combination chelation therapy.

Use drug chelators to mobilize toxic metals for excretion out of the body and natural products to improve the process so lower drug doses can be used to produce optimal results.

Natural products also reduce the chance of toxic metals going to other sites like the brain. They also provide antioxidant protection and immune support to body tissues compromised by heavy metal toxicity.

Natural chelation helpers:

  • Alpha lipoic acid (ALA)
  • Andrographis (Andrographis paniculata)
  • Calcium
  • Chlorella
  • Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum)
  • Garlic
  • Glutathione, intravenous or nebulized
  • Hops (Humulus lupulus)
  • Magnesium
  • Modified citrus pectin
  • N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC)
  • Selenium, yeast-derived
  • Taurine
  • Turmeric (Curcuma longa)
  • Vitamin C
  • Whey protein isolate
  • Zinc

What level of arsenic is safe in your food and water? What level of arsenic is acceptable in your body? The answer is that no amount of arsenic in the food or water supply is safe, and the acceptable amount in your blood is zero.

Dr. J. E. Williams


Dr. Williams is a pioneer in integrative and functional medicine, the author of six books, and a practicing clinician with over 100,000 patient visits. His areas of interest include longevity and viral immunity. Formerly from San Diego, he now resides in Sarasota, Florida and practices at the Florida Integrative Medical Center. He teaches at NOVA Southeastern University and Emperor’s College of Oriental Medicine.

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