Could Even a Low Exposure to Arsenic Affect Your Heart?

Your environmental wellness, or your exposure to toxins, is intrinsically linked to your overall wellbeing. This has already been established in countless studies, but a new one has come into the fray to add to what we already know; exposure to toxins is bad for wellness. However, this new study, published the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, points out that chronic exposure to even low levels of arsenic in your environmental can increase your risk of having a heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular disease.


Previous research has already shown us that exposure to high levels of arsenic in your drinking water (which is defined as more than 100 micrograms per litre) is connected to a raised risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, peripheral artery disease and carotid atherosclerosis. However, this new study, undertaken by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, aimed to see how low to moderate levels of arsenic in an environment might affect heart health risks in American Indians. According to study author Dr. Ana Navas-Acien, a researcher in the department of environmental health sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, ‘We didn’t know what would happen at levels that occur regularly in the United States.’


Even after the researchers adjusted their results to take into account other risk factors – such as smoking, obesity and cholesterol levels – the results of the study revealed that regular exposure to more common levels of arsenic did indeed correlate to increased risk of fatal and nonfatal cardiovascular disease. Navas-Acien commented, ‘It’s a chronic long-term health effect. We need to understand that cardiovascular disease is a very complex illness, and there are many environmental risk factors like arsenic which can contribute.’ However, while the plus point of they study is that it did find an association between relatively common levels of arsenic in drinking water and a higher risk of heart disease, it’s important to bear in mind that the researchers did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.


For the study, the researchers spent 19 years studying almost 3,600 Native American men and women living in Arizona, Oklahoma, North Dakota and South Dakota. The study began in 1989, and the researchers continued to follow the participants up until 2008. The researchers surmised that participants living in Arizona and the Dakotas were possibly the most exposed to arsenic through groundwater, as the private wells in those states often exceed the U.S. standard for arsenic in drinking water of 10 micrograms per litre. In fact, these wells sometimes contain arsenic levels as high as 50 micrograms per litre. In Oklahoma, on the other hand, the most likely source of arsenic exposure was their food, which the researchers citing rice, flour and other grains as potential sources.


Alice Lichtenstein, a distinguished professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University, was not involved with the study, was pleased with the findings. She noted, ‘The paper is very important. It’s an area where we need to look more carefully. It gives other research groups another variable to address.’  However, Lichtenstein, who also is the director of the cardiovascular nutrition laboratory at the university, added, ‘We don’t know what the direct effect is. What is important is that we gather more information, which I hope will be done promptly. We should not discount this. It’s very important. But I think we need a little more information.’


If you’re worried about your arsenic exposure risk, Navas-Acien recommended you have your drinking water tested. ‘In particular, people who live in small communities or have private wells should be aware of the arsenic levels in their drinking water,’ she said. ‘If you use groundwater and you don’t know the levels of arsenic in your drinking water, that can be quite dangerous.’ Lichtenstein agreed, and added, ‘The best advice we can give people is to eat food that comes from a variety of different regions, as opposed to being raised in a single location.’

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