Arsenic is a chemical element with the symbol As and atomic number 33. Arsenic occurs in many minerals, usually in combination with sulfur and metals, but also as a pure elemental crystal. Arsenic is a metalloid. It has various allotropes, but only the gray form, which has a metallic appearance, is important to the industry.
The primary use of arsenic is in alloys of lead (for example, in car batteries and ammunition). Arsenic is a common n-type dopant in semiconductor electronic devices. It is also a component of the III-V compound semiconductor gallium arsenide. Arsenic and its compounds, especially trioxide, are used in the production of pesticides, treated wood products, herbicides, and insecticides. These applications are declining with the increasing recognition of the toxicity of arsenic and its compounds.
A few species of bacteria are able to use arsenic compounds as respiratory metabolites. Trace quantities of arsenic are an essential dietary element in rats, hamsters, goats, chickens, and presumably other species. A role in human metabolism is not known. However, arsenic poisoning occurs in multicellular life if quantities are larger than needed. Arsenic contamination of groundwater is a problem that affects millions of people across the world.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency states that all forms of arsenic are a serious risk to human health. The United States Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry ranked arsenic as number 1 in its 2001 Priority List of Hazardous Substances at Superfund sites. Arsenic is classified as a Group-A carcinogen.
Arsenic was also used in various agricultural insecticides and poisons. For example, lead hydrogen arsenate was a common insecticide on fruit trees, but contact with the compound sometimes resulted in brain damage among those working the sprayers. In the second half of the 20th century, monosodium methyl arsenate (MSMA) and disodium methyl arsenate (DSMA) – less toxic organic forms of arsenic – replaced lead arsenate in agriculture. These organic arsenicals were in turn phased out by 2013 in all agricultural activities except cotton farming.
The biogeochemistry of arsenic is complex and includes various adsorption and desorption processes. The toxicity of arsenic is connected to its solubility and is affected by pH. Arsenite (AsO3−3) is more soluble than arsenate (AsO3−
4) and is more toxic; however, at a lower pH, arsenate becomes more mobile and toxic. It was found that addition of sulfur, phosphorus, and iron oxides to high-arsenite soils greatly reduces arsenic phytotoxicity.
Arsenic is used as a feed additive in poultry and swine production, in particular in the U.S. to increase weight gain, improve feed efficiency, and prevent disease. An example is roxarsone, which had been used as a broiler starter by about 70% of U.S. broiler growers. Alpharma, a subsidiary of Pfizer Inc., which produces roxarsone, voluntarily suspended sales of the drug in response to studies showing elevated levels of inorganic arsenic, a carcinogen, in treated chickens. A successor to Alpharma, Zoetis, continues to sell nitarsone, primarily for use in turkeys.
Arsenic is intentionally added to the feed of chickens raised for human consumption. Organic arsenic compounds are less toxic than pure arsenic and promote the growth of chickens. Under some conditions, the arsenic in chicken feed is converted to the toxic inorganic form.
A 2006 study of the remains of the Australian racehorse, Phar Lap, determined that the 1932 death of the famous champion was caused by a massive overdose of arsenic. Sydney veterinarian Percy Sykes stated, “In those days, arsenic was quite a common tonic, usually given in the form of a solution (Fowler’s Solution) … It was so common that I’d reckon 90% of the horses had arsenic in their system.”
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