Study Adds Lung Damage To Harmful Effects Of Arsenic

Global areas with high levels of arsenic contamination in water supplies

Global areas with high levels of arsenic contamination in water supplies

A new study by Habibul Ahsan, MD, confirms that exposure to low to moderate amounts of arsenic in drinking water can impair lung function. Doses of about 120 parts per billion of arsenic in well water — about 12 times the dose generally considered safe — produced lung damage comparable to decades of smoking tobacco. Smoking, especially by males, made arsenic-related damage even worse.

Habibul Ahsan, MD, MMedSc

This is the first population-based study to clearly demonstrate significant impairment of lung function, in some cases extensive lung damage, associated with low to moderate arsenic exposure.

John Easton has more on the study in our Newsroom:

“Restrictive lung defects, such as we saw in those exposed to well-water arsenic, are usually progressive and irreversible,” said the study’s senior author, Habibul Ahsan, MD, MMedSc, Director of the Center for Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention at the University of Chicago Medicine. “They can lead over time to serious lung disease.”

The study, conducted in Bangladesh and published early online in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, adds to a growing list of arsenic-related health problems that includes skin, bladder and lung cancers, cardiovascular disease, cognitive deficits and premature death. An estimated 77 million people — nearly half of the residents of Bangladesh, the world’s eighth most populous country — live in areas where groundwater wells contain harmful amounts of arsenic.

The study, coordinated by Ahsan and co-author Faruque Parvez, DrPH, of Columbia University, was the next step in the Health Effects of Arsenic Longitudinal Study (HEALS), a long-term Bangladesh-based project, begun in 2000 and expanded in 2006. Science Life has followed the HEALS project as they have published their findings over the past few years, including:

Parvez F., Chen Y., Yunus M., Olopade C., Segers S., Slavkovich V., Argos M., Hasan R., Ahmed A. & Islam T. & (2013). Arsenic Exposure and Impaired Lung Function: Findings from a Large Population-based Prospective Cohort Study, American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 130712141304005. DOI:

About Matt Wood (531 Articles)
Matt Wood is a senior science writer and manager of communications at the University of Chicago Medicine & Biological Sciences Division.
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