Effect Measure

Bird flu and arsenic

Bird flu is all over the Indian state of West Bengal and the country that borders it on the east, Bangladesh. The Ganges River flows through West Bengal, dividing in two, with one branch headed into Bangladesh. The Gangetic alluvium and delta region also has another unhappy claim to fame: it is the site of an enormous chronic poisoning from groundwater containing naturally occurring arsenic.

The mass poisoning that is occurring in West Bengal and Bangladesh is another example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. Drinking water is one of the most important resources for any community and the government with the aid and encouragement of international intergovernmental, non-profit and governmental aid organizations began to supply the poorest in the population with a source of groundwater via tubewells. Tens of millions of tubewells were sunk and there was success in reducing the heavy toll of waterborne disase. But in the 1980s it was discovered that almost half of the groundwater supplied in this way was heavily contaminated with natural arsenic. The toxic metal gets into foodstuffs grown in contaminated water used to irrigate crops. The exposed population is estimated to be in the many tens of millions. Thousands of cases of arsenic poisoning have already been recorded but they are likely only the tip of the iceberg. It is a genuine environmental catastrophe.

One question that occurred to me was whether there is any interaction between arsenic and bird flu. I don’t know that anyone has looked into this and I haven’t seen it discussed anywhere (virologists and poultry people don’t usually read the literature of environmental health and vice versa). But the relationship is plausible because arsenic is toxic to the immune system. In fact it is used to treat leukemia and multiple myeloma for this reason (these are cancers of immune system cells). Arsenic is able to induce programmed cell death (apoptosis) in immune cells. Some viral infections, like herpes zoster, can be reactivated after exposure to arsenic. Indeed there is a large scientific literature on effects of arsenic on the immune system.

The immune effects could possibly be on either poultry, humans, or both. Or not. But it is worth considering, given the dramatic prevalence of arsenic exposure in West Bengal and Bangladesh and the spreading bird flu virus in poultry there.


  1. #1 Joe Six Pack
    February 6, 2008

    I remember reading about this water crisis years ago. If memory serves me right, the arsenic was not water soluble. When the water table was lowered by the use of all those well intended wells, the arsenic was exposed to air and underwent a chemical change to a water soluble type.

    Here is another genuine environmental catastrophe:
    Damn Interesting � Mutant Killer Seaweed of Doom

  2. #2 Shannon
    February 6, 2008


    The toxicology desk reference states “respiratory effects caused by arsenic include: pulmonary edema; adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS; and acute respiratory failure from weakness of the respiratory muscles.”

    Arsenic then would exacerbate the diseases propensity to initiate ARDS. It would also increase the morbidity and mortality due to weakening the respiratory muscles.

  3. #3 Shannon
    February 6, 2008

    Medicinal uses of arsenicals
    Inorganic arsenic has been used in medicine for over 2500 years. The most widely used form was Fowler solution containing 1% potassium arsenite, which was used for treatment of psoriasis. Arsphenamine was for many years the standard treatment for syphilis. Melarsoprol is an organoarsenic compound used to treat infections caused by Trypanosoma brucei or Trypanosoma gambiense. Retrospective studies have suggested an increase in the incidence of hepatic angiosarcoma in people previously treated with Fowler solution, but evidence is tentative. Regular, long-term arsenic exposure has been associated with various cutaneous carcinomas as well as internal malignancies including bronchogenic carcinoma and hepatocellular carcinoma.
    Around 1900 in Frankfurt, Germany, a pharmacologist named Paul Ehrlich (not to be confused with The Population Bomb author) became preoccupied with the violently poisonous nature of arsenic. Ehrlich, however, was convinced that the toxic potential of arsenic could be harnessed and used therapeutically as a treatment for diseases such as syphilis. By chemically attaching arsenic to various carbon and hydrogen (organic) structures, he hoped to make it less accessible to binding cites on cells that produce adverse affects for humans and more specifically toxic for the infectious organisms. The search was tedious to say the least.

    Ehrlich patiently threaded his way through 604 different organic compounds of arsenic before he literally stumbled on number 605 to which he gave the grandiose name of Salvarsan. With brilliant insight, he even postulated that its antimicrobial activity might involve the binding of Salvarsan to sulfur groups on the microbes. As toxicologists now know, arsenic – and many other metals – are strongly attracted to sulfur; some of the sulfur in human proteins is critical to biological function. Salvarsan became the first drug that was safe enough to be given to humans and to be truly effective against the dread spirochete bacteria that causes syphilis. It was to be replaced immediately on the discovery of penicillin, but Salvarsan deserves its place in history.


  4. #4 Shannon
    February 6, 2008

    I was able to find one reference to cancer remission in some cancers (apoptosis?). Unfortunately, I was not able to open the link to the study. For the most part other than the Erlich carbon and hydrogen (organic) attachment, the papers are almost universally negative. (There was one group of people who took a small amount on a weekly basis as a tonic.)

    In the early 1800s, arsenic exposure was linked to cancer and its medicinal use diminished. However, recent clinical research has shown that arsenic trioxide, administered intravenously, can induce cancer remission in some people with refractory acute promyelocytic leukemia; the FDA subsequently approved this treatment for use beginning in September 2000. Further, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is currently investigating the beneficial role of arsenic in the human diet. It now appears that it may be essential in human nutrition and that too little in the diet may actually increase cancer risks (1). Such is the yin and yang of arsenic.

  5. #5 revere
    February 6, 2008

    Shannon: The Ehrlich story is quite famous. It is in fact the origin of the phrase “magic bullet” for a drug that wipes out a disease (alas, syphilis wasn’t wiped out).

  6. #6 Patch
    February 6, 2008


    What do you make of the explosion of H5N1 cases in birds in these areas but so far little comment about human cases? You know me well enough (through postings) to know I’m no conspiracy nut…I’m not thinking the cases are purposely being withheld , but I also understand that some may be otherwise “unnoticed”. There has to be MANY human exposures to H5N1 over there. We should see something in the way of increased human cases with this kind of avian explosion, if the disease were becoming so much more transmissible to humans.

    I know that increased avian exposures is bad news. And I know that a pandemic strain can come to fruition in a snap. But the lack of human cases would be some cause for at least minimal encouragement about the viruses immediate ability to adapt, would it not?

    Would you care to speculate?

  7. #7 revere
    February 6, 2008

    Patch: I always assume there are missed cases, since case finding is difficult in this part of the world (it would be in the US, too). So far the virus doesn’t transmit easily from birds but with a lot of exposure even rare events would be expected to occur. So the bigger question than whether cases are being missed (assume, yes) is whether the missed cases signify anything bigger going on. No way to know that as far as I can tell but to wait to see.

  8. #8 Shannon
    February 6, 2008

    Revere it is a sad day indeed when you don’t learn something new. :D

    Patch, I think that is the $64,000. question. Considering the infection rate in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt and other recent locations where we have witnessed poultry deaths, culling, and the subsequent H5N1 infection in humans, it does seem odd. Is this indeed a move away from human infection or, are we not seeing the ‘whole’ picture?

  9. #9 M. Randolph Kruger
    February 6, 2008

    Interesting……I assume this is organic arsenic as well Revere? I also assume it moves up the food chain into humans as well?

    AS for the BF connection a couple of insiders said that unbeknown to the WHO only blood tests have been used or mostly used on BF testing in India and Bangla. I am interested about that Revere. Is the blood test worth a crap?

  10. #10 revere
    February 6, 2008

    Randy: No. It is all inorganic As. It seems to contaminate vegetables and rice but not meat. I don’t think there is a hazard from eating poultry with arsenic poisoning (at least that is my impression). Don’t know about the blood tests or even what “blood tests” means in this connection.

  11. #11 Patch
    February 7, 2008

    Revere / Shannon

    I know there is no cause for celebration, but the sheer volume of exposures to Avian H5N1 in India in particular (where I get a sense it is/was out of control), would lead one to believe that we’d be seeing multiple Human cases. Even with poor reporting, it would be difficult to ignore many infections, if it were becoming increasingly easier to transmit to humans.

    Since it’s difficult to confirm positive (or negative) H5N1 infections in that part of the world it’s sheer speculation on my part, but if it isn’t drifting away from humans it certainly remains difficult to transmit.

  12. #12 Shannon
    February 7, 2008

    The sheer numbers of probable infections is what worries all of us. Every time the virus replicates it opens the door to a mutation that means pandemic. It still apparently remains primarily a disease that takes intimate proximity to either an infected loved one or a sick bird. Otherwise, we would be seeing an exponential number of cases of high fevers. Reducing the number of human infections limits the number of times the dice may be thrown. What we are seeing in both Bangladesh and India is not a trickle but a probable flood of infections. Treating everyone who gets a fever with Tamiflu, then testing only the serum levels insures a negative result. We know they are deliberately hiding the actual numbers of possible infections yet, we remain powerless to do anything about the situation. Only the great god of dice rolling knows when the magic number will eventually be tossed onto the craps table and the dice just keep hitting the table. In this case a lot of dice.

  13. #13 Shannon
    February 8, 2008

    Revere, I owe you a debt of gratitude. We are looking for a new home. One of the properties has a well. While I was looking at the arsenic question you posted, I stumbled upon something that the realtor failed to share with us. The well is in an area that has several/most wells which tested high in naturally occurring arsenic. No mention was made of any tests or even the need for testing. I was completely unaware of even the need to bring up the subject. I think we will look at other property if no testing has been done. I think I will hire another realtor as well. It would appear she doesn’t have our best interests but rather her own commission in mind.

  14. #14 M. Randolph Kruger
    February 8, 2008

    Shannon-A lot of the time your agent might not be the brightest bulb in the socket and only looking at their commission. Big Daddy before his passing years ago was a broker and there is a diff between them and an agent. Agents are more involved with that commission thing. Brokers are the ones that get themselves nailed if something goes wrong in their agent relationships.

    Each state is different. Some just have disclosure rules and they are set by the realtors, some have laws. Be mightily careful. Any hard items you should look at the dates on such as the wiring installations and if its up to current code. Remember the copper/aluminum wiring thing? Nice fires… burn like a welders torch.

    But the organic arsenic is found just about everywhere in some levels. Dr. Revere could cover that very easily. But its the inorganic stuff that really puts the hurt on you. Old mines are great sources of arsenic, cobalt and the like. I dont know where you live but in the 1980′s to the real estate association it became more and more apparent that the builders were putting houses up on more and more substandard land. E.g. here in Memphis they were decommissioning the Defense Depot which had VOC’s, Arsenic, Lead, Barium, Lewisite, Dieldrin (right spellling?), Radioactive III, Cobalt, Dioxin and long latitine chain chemicals that you couldnt write the name for here. So on one side of the street there was a housing development. On the other a nice new park. Beautiful in fact.

    So why wasnt that land developed for new houses? Because it was so contaminated that the only use that could be made for it WAS a park. They a really neat sign that was small. It said,”Please limit your visits to this park to twice a week to prevent exposure to the following” and in microprint there the list of some 50 EPA hazards. Kids played in that park until they started developing leukemia’s, cancers of all types…Dogs too.

    Environmental problems are all over. That same group determined on their own that any potential buyers and the brokers/agents should review the area for not less than 3 miles around a potential buy/sell for disclosure items starting with the home and the homes near you for problems. Talk to the neighbors first without the agent around.Powerline projects, known chemical hazards and other environmental issues such as Radon. Here is a link that goes to one of the old timers that talks about the old timers that my Dad had in his things that were favorites in the business.


    My Dad used to say, “You arent buying a house, you are buying a chemical dump”

  15. #15 Shannon
    February 8, 2008

    TY Randolph. In this case we are talking about high levels of arsenic. The recommendation was to use reverse osmosis to correct the problem. As I am a dedicated raiser of animals, fruits and vegetables, it would be prohibitive to run all of the water we use through a purifying system. Our laws dictate full disclosure. I wonder when they would have bothered with that little gem?