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Virginia Tech Professor Educates Students on Arsenic

BY JASON LAURITZEN

Madeline Schreiber, Associate Professor from Virginia Tech’s Department of Geosciences,


gave a speech Thursday on the toxin arsenic. About 100 people attended the speech, presented in
the Blue Ridge Ballroom of Appalachian State University’s student union. The crowd was a
mixture of Appalachian students and professors.

Schreiber has a Bachelor of Science in Geology from Yale University. Her speech was titled
“Environmental Fate of Arsenic: New Research on an Ancient Poison.” Schreiber realized that
her fascination with arsenic was a little abnormal and said, “I’m known as the crazy arsenic
lady.”

Arsenic is historically known as a poison and was used frequently because it was hard to detect
in the bloodstream. Arsenic used to be in cosmetics, preservatives and pigments. At the height of
the toxin’s absurd popularity, it was sold in tablet form in the 1906 Sear’s Catalog to women to
“better their complexion.”

Now arsenic is used in pesticides, herbicides and animal feed additives. It is classified as a
carcinogen and a toxin. Chronic exposure or arsenicosis, which usually occurs when one drinks
water with high levels of arsenic, can lead to changes in skin color, skin cancer, lung cancer,
cancer of the kidney and bladder and gangrene.

Even with all these nasty effects, Schreiber said there is a positive to arsenic: the FDA approved
Arsenic trioxide in 2000 as a treatment for leukemia. Moderate doses of the drug delivered over
short periods of time have been effective at fighting the cancer.

People are exposed to arsenic in several ways; Burning coal and wood push arsenic into the air;
Arsenic leaks into the soil via pesticides and animal feed and is even naturally present in
seaweed. However, the majority of people are exposed to arsenic through their drinking water.

To illustrate how the majority of people are exposed to arsenic through drinking water, Schreiber
went over a case study from Southern Bangladesh. A massive amount of wells were installed in
the ‘70s to filter out bacterial pathogens, but failed to detect arsenic. The problem arises not from
companies dumping materials, but from natural sources. “Geochemical conditions allow for the
arsenic … to get straight into the water,” said Schreiber.

In Bangladesh and other countries in South East Asia, such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Tibet, the
geological environment is conducive to high levels of arsenic. It is estimated that 57 million
people in Bangladesh drink water with high arsenic concentrations. At least 10 million wells
have been affected, which has lead to a rise in cancer rates.

Arsenic levels in Bangladesh are over 50 parts per billion, which is the World Health
Organization’s standard. This is equivalent to 50 drops of ink in a large tanker truck. The United
States has even higher standards than the WHO. The Environmental Protection Agency is
working on implementing the Safe Drinking Water Act that will revise tradition drinking water
standards. All public water systems in the United States will be required to comply with a 10
parts per billion standard by January 23, 2006. The standard is an attempt to keep US drinking
water safe. The American Water Works Association estimates it will cost $14 billion in capital
investments.

While arsenic is often found in water supplies due to natural geochemical reactions, there are still
cases of people introducing chemicals that result in problems. Schreiber illustrated this concept
when she explained a research project she embarked on in the Muddy Creek Watershed area of
Virginia.

Muddy Creek is home to plenty of poultry farms and large portions of the poultry have roxarsone
injected in their feed. Roxarsone is a feed additive that helps keep down bacterial infections and
helps animals gain weight. The problem does not deal with roxarsone directly, but rather
indirectly.

Once the animal ingests roxarsone and it comes out in the feed it transforms into arsenic. Many
Virginian farmers then use this feed to fertilize their fields. When a large storm hits a field
fertilized with this feed, 40 percent of the arsenic washes into local streams, in turn affecting the
local water supply.

Schreiber said she and her team of researchers at Virginia Tech are still analyzing the various
ways in which arsenic gets released and stressed that predicting where arsenic contamination
occurs is very challenging. She is dedicated to identifying future sources of arsenic in hopes that
it will keep people safe.