Arsenic has always had an evil reputation. Its use as a homicidal and suicidal agent is widely known. In addition, more recently, its potential for causing harm in the environment is being realized. Abundant studies establish a relationship between arsenic and certain types of cancer. As a contaminant in drinking water, it poses a significant threat to human health.
The alchemists' symbol for arsenic is a coiled serpent (Levander et al., 1977, p. 1). The chemical is famous for its poisonous attributes. Less wellknown, however, is the fact that arsenic has also been used as a therapeutic "tonic." For hundreds of years, patients received arsenic for conditions ranging from acute infections to epilepsy, and asthma (Bickley & Papa, 1989, p. 378). Furthermore, both inorganic and organic arsenic preparations are still in limited use today (Levander et al., 1977, p. 174). Regardless though, whether arsenic exposure has been by accident or on purpose, its ingestion has been implicated in the development of several forms of cancer (Bickley & Papa, 1989, p. 377).
The chemistry of arsenic is complex (Malachowski, 1990, p. 463). In the natural environment, it is rarely encountered as a free element. In one form or another, arsenic is present in most rocks, soils, water, and living organisms (Malachowski, 1990, p. 462). It ranks twentieth among the elements in abundance in the earth's crust (Fowler, 1983, p. 53). It also serves as a major constituent of about 245 mineral species (Fowler, 1983, p. 53).
The concentration of arsenic in natural waters tends to vary. It is commonly associated with thermal activity, rocks of high arsenic content, and areas with high quantities of dissolvedsalts (Levander et al., 1977, p. 20). In addition, arsenic contamination of water may occur in industrialized areas or where pesticides have been used (Furlong, 1978, p. 67).
The element has long held a position of ambiguity wit...