CLEMSON — The Clemson University Experiment Station has approved funding for research on arsenic in water resources. A worldwide problem, there are coastal areas in South Carolina with above-average levels of naturally occurring arsenic.

Clemson biologist Lisa Bain studies killifish, a small, hardy and prolific fish, using it as a model to see the effects of arsenic on early stages of growth. Her research indicates that even low percentages of the poison harm killifish.

“At fairly low levels, arsenic appears to cause reduced muscle fiber density in young killifish,” Bain said. “Born with fewer numbers of fast-twitch muscle fibers, they are weaker and unable to swim fast, which affects their ability to capture food and escape becoming prey.”

The weakened muscle condition can be passed from one generation to the next, according to the research.

Arsenic at nonfatal levels can make people sick. The poison has been linked to brain development problems in children and cancers in adults.

“The levels currently set by government should be reviewed and research supports revising them to lower levels in drinking water,” Bain said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for arsenic at 10 parts per billion. A “part” equals one gram, which in one part per billion of an impurity in water represents a tiny fraction of the total amount of water. One part per billion is the equivalent of one drop of impurity in 500 barrels (42 gallons per barrel) of water.

The current standard, which went into effect in 2006, replaced the old standard of 50 parts per billion established in 1942 and enforced by the EPA as of 1975.

Bain and others recommend that the current 10 parts be cut in half to five. The cost would be high to reach the lower level, but the health impact makes a strong case for doing so, according to researchers. The EPA defends the 10 parts per billion standard, as it “maximizes health risk reduction benefits at a cost that is justified by the benefits.”

In the continental United States, higher-than-average arsenic concentrations are in Colorado, Utah, South Dakota, Wyoming, Arkansas, Idaho, Montana and South Carolina, according to the EPA.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control monitors drinking water quality, though not drinking water from private wells. Arsenic enters drinking water supplies from natural deposits in the earth or from agricultural and industrial practices, including mining and coal burning, either through the ground or as runoff into surface water sources, according the DHEC website.

The DHEC website states that exposure to arsenic can cause a wide range of illnesses, including nausea and vomiting, decreased production of red and white blood cells and abnormal heart rhythm. Long-term exposure to arsenic in children may result in lower IQ scores. It also can cause skin damage or circulatory system problems and raise the risk of getting certain cancers. Very high levels of arsenic can cause death.

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Clemson University Experiment Station
Clemson University's Experiment Station is part of a nationwide system of scientists working to improve the quality of life. More than 100 scientists, in addition to support staff, are working on more than 110 projects funded through state, federal and other sources. Researchers have produced more than 100 new varieties of food and fiber crops and 50 patents. Experiment Station research is funded by the state and by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).