by Dr. Mark Edwards

Arsenic Poisoning and Children’s Cognitive Loss

Algae can save our children’s brainpower. The Superfund Priority List of Hazardous Substances ranks arsenic number one because very tiny assimilation builds cumulative body stores that impose devastating health consequences. Arsenic is a stealth killer ingested in polluted air and groundwater and poses a peak mortality risk far greater than any other environmental exposure.

White arsenic used as last resort to treat leukemia

White arsenic used as last resort to treat leukemia

Arsenic is one of the most common inorganic contaminants found in drinking water worldwide. The metalloid, (with properties in between those of metals and nonmetals) occurs as a natural component of sediments. Small quantities dissolve in
groundwater as a result of weathering, earthquakes, irrigation or fracking. The inorganic salts of arsenic are tasteless and odorless, but highly toxic to humans. Low dose ingestion over long periods can cause damage to health, including major organ failure, hyperpigmentation, hyperkeratosis on the palms and soles, disorders of liver, cardiovascular and kidney function as well as many types of cancer.
Arsenic exposure creates severe damage during fetal and infant life because the metalloid blocks normal nerve and brain development. Concentrations below 10μg/L are considered safe but recent studies show cognitive loss in children at lower concentrations.

Rat poison

Rat poison

A recent review article reported that early life arsenic exposure results in major mortality increases among young adults aged 30-49 from lung cancer and bronchiectasis, myocardial infarction, kidney cancer, and bladder cancer. Exposure often results in cognitive loss, behavior and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, slowed growth and sensory problems. Exposure by pregnant women increases the likelihood of spontaneous miscarriage, premature birth and birth defects. Alan Smith, professor of Social and Preventive Medicine at The State University of New York recently published a telling article: “Once we asked what arsenic might cause; now we ask, what does it not cause?”

Cognitive loss

Considerable research in South Asia and Bangladesh shows that exposure to arsenic in drinking water is negatively associated with child intelligence. A 2014 study of Maine school children quantified the cognitive loss. The research team, led by Joseph Graziano, professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, assessed 272 children in grades 3–5, in Maine who were exposed to arsenic in drinking water. On average, water arsenic levels measured at the kitchen tap were 9.88 parts arsenic (9.88μg/L), with almost a third of samples exceeding 10 μg/L, the maximum contaminant level guideline of the WHO and EPA. The children exposed to higher levels of arsenic displayed a 5 to 6 point drop in IQ on the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children.

Creeping disease

Arsenic migrates unseen, into shallow and deep aquifers, largely due to human activities. Many Americans are at risk because the CDC reports that >60 million Americans regularly depend on private water wells. Most private well owners occasionally test for bacteria but rarely test for anything else. The USGS conducted a national sample of wells in 2003. They found 19% of the 5,183 of the untreated public, private, and monitoring wells exceeded the health standards or guidelines. Arsenic, uranium and manganese most frequently exceeded health standards.

Municipal water supplies in the U.S. are regularly tested for arsenic. When arsenic is found, removal is expensive. In many rural communities, people dig their own wells and the water does not get tested for arsenic. Rural populations in the U.S. and globally are most vulnerable to arsenic poisoning. Most rural families are unlikely to move for a water contamination threat that poisons silently. Fortunately, investigative journalist Eliza Griswold of the New York Timeswrote a 2011 story about the stealth danger in rural water and fracking.

Agricultural irrigation spreads fertilizers and pesticides, some of which contain arsenic. In 2001 the EPA lowered the maximum level of arsenic permitted in drinking water from 50 micrograms per liter (ug/L) to 10 ug/L but recent studies show mental and physical health degradation at less than half of these levels. Most surface and groundwater irrigation water is not tested for arsenic, pesticides or other poisons.

Irrigation from groundwater or surface sources can disperse arsenic to crops

Irrigation from groundwater or surface sources can disperse arsenic to crops


Numerous scientists have warned of arsenic and heavy metal contamination to drinking water from fracking but empirical data has been scarce. Natural-gas drilling companies refuse to reveal the chemicals they are putting into ground, claiming it is proprietary information. In 2005, Vice President Dick Cheney pushed through an amendment to the energy bill called the Halliburton Loophole. This legislation exempts hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act. It protects companies like Halliburton from disclosing what chemicals are going into the ground. Some states have passed laws requiring fracking companies to report their chemical cocktail.

The first scientific report to support contamination is a study by researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington. The team found elevated levels of arsenic and other heavy metals, selenium and strontium, in groundwater near natural gas fracking sites in Texas’ Barnett Shale. Arsenic in areas with fracking was about 18 times higher than in areas without fracking.

Lead author Brian Fontenot reported samples taken before fracking did not show the presence of arsenic while samples taken after fracking showed arsenic. Samples closer to fracking wells also tended to contain higher amounts of arsenic. The authors theorize that actions associated with fracking may mobilize arsenic that was previously bound inside rock formations. Some fracking wells experience injection-induced earthquakes, which may dislodge arsenic.

An internal EPA presentation recently obtained by the Los Angeles Timeswarned that wells near Dimock, Pennsylvania, showed elevated levels of arsenic in the groundwater. The EPA also found arsenic in groundwater near fracking sites in Pavillion, Wyoming in 2009. A new US Geological Survey map shows that the U.S. has a serious arsenic contamination problem, especially in California, the Rocky Mountains and the Midwest.

US Geological Survey Map of Arsenic Contamination in Groundwater

US Geological Survey Map of Arsenic Contamination in Groundwater

The USGS created a separate arsenic risk map for California. The map is checkered with dots showing wells with arsenic levels greater than ten times higher than EPA and California standards. Many underground water sources remain untested due to the cost of arsenic testing or the politics of companies that work against scientific testing.

Algae solutions

Algae offer several novel solutions to reduce arsenic exposure in children and to remove arsenic stores in their bodies and brains. The first four green algae strategies reduce environmental exposure. The fifth strategy naturally and harmlessly pulls the arsenic from body tissues.

  1. Clean polluted water. Use algae to pull arsenic and other heavy metals from polluted water.
  2. Clean polluted soil. Algae can clean arsenic and heavy metals from polluted water and soil.
  3. Grow algae crusts. Apply algae soil crusts to mitigate arsenic erosion and poison migration from wind and water.
  4. Expand soil porosity. Use smartcultures to enhance soil porosity and allow surface arsenic to percolate below the root zone.
  5. Use an algae chelator. Remove arsenic stores from children by using algae as a natural chelator.

Clean water

Algae has been used for water remediation in the U.S. for >50 years. Algae absorb and remove botanical and animal organic wastes from polluted water. Certain algae species are very effective at absorbing heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury that are common near mines and industrial sites. Some algae companies operate with a business model of separating the heavy metals from the algae biomass and selling the heavy metals back to industry. These companies have two profit centers, water remediation and heavy metals sales. Heavy metals are far easier to separate when they are in a solid form, in the algae, than when they are highly diluted in wastewater.

Clean soil

Arsenic from power plant and industrial smoke plumes and winds create a thin layer in the top few millimeters of the soil. Farmers can scrape their topsoil and apply it to an algae production system where algae perform remediation similar to polluted water. The total cost for the topsoil scrape, plus the separation of water and soil, are so high that this application will probably be reserved for superfund sites addressing nuclear, mining, PCB or heavy metal contamination.

Grow algae crusts

Owens Lake dust storm

Owens Lake dust storm

Ancient lakes that are now dry, such as Owens Lake in California have high arsenic concentrations in the top few centimeters of old lakebed. When the wind blows with summer dust storms, the dust cloud distributes arsenic in a several hundred square mile plume. The arsenic poisons fields and water and puts rural families in jeopardy.

Most of the deserts have an algae crust. These algae soil crusts often live in symbiosis with fungi and form a surface matrix that holds topsoil from wind and water erosion. Algae live in symbiosis with fungi in lichens, which may be attached to the soil or rocks.

Expand soil porosity

Farmers can use Smartcultures, algae biofertilizers that improve soil fertility and add humus, organic matter, to the soil. Our research with Dell Monte fresh produce division demonstrated that Smartcultures can improve soil porosity, looseness, by 500%. Soils with higher fertility and humus grow stronger crops that have substantially longer roots. The higher soil porosity extends the reach of roots due to the looseness of the soil. Higher porosity also enables pesticide poisons layered on the soil surface to percolate with irrigation or rainwater harmlessly through the root zone.

Soil crusts form in deserts and oceans

Soil crusts form in deserts and oceans

Use an algae chelator

The blue-green algae spirulina provides a source of dietary vegetable protein, B-vitamins, and iron. Spirulina is also used for attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), hay fever, diabetes, stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression. Spirulina has been used for precancerous growths inside the mouth, boosting the immune system, healing wounds, and improving digestion and bowel health. Recent studies found spirulina supplements modestly successful in treating colon and prostate cancer.

Spirulina has been shown to chelate with heavy metals such as arsenic and remove them from the body. Mir Misbahuddin and team at the Medical University, Dhaka, Bangladesh performed a series of studies showing spirulina chelated effectively with arsenic and removed most of the poison from animal body tissues. In 2006, the team did a double blind and placebo test on forty-one chronic arsenic poisoning patients who were treated orally by placebo or spirulina (250 mg) plus zinc (2 mg) twice daily for 16 weeks. The spirulina extract plus zinc removed 47% of the arsenic from scalp hair while the placebo did not. Spirulina extract had no noticeable side effects. Results showed that spirulina plus zinc offers a natural treatment of chronic arsenic poisoning.

Path forward

Arsenic poisoning robs our children of brainpower and imposes severe physical and mental challenges. Algae offer several solutions to moderate arsenic pollution by cleaning the most likely sources, water and soil. Algae crusts and algae biofertilizers also mitigate arsenic migration in the air, water, soils and root zone of food crops.

Algae offer additional arsenic solutions besides reducing ecological exposure. Several algae compounds have proven effective in moderating and, in some cases, eliminating the terrible mental and physical maladies caused by arsenic. The highest value for algae probably is use as a natural chelator to treat victims of arsenic poisoning and remove the arsenic from body tissues.

Algae have been shown to remove arsenic stores in animals and humans. In the near future, people in areas exposed to arsenic in the air, water or food will use microfarms to grow algae. One teaspoon of algae a day will keep their children safe from the horror of arsenic poisoning and preserve their brainpower.