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Arsenic: The Cancer-Causing Element That’s All Around Us

May 8, 2024

There are more than 250 known substances that cause cancer in humans. These substances – called carcinogens – increase your risk of getting cancer every time you are exposed to them.

“Carcinogens are in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat,” says Ana Navas-Acien, MD, of the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center. She’s an expert on environmental carcinogens, which affect people all over the world.

One carcinogen that is an especially big problem? Arsenic, the oldest known carcinogen. And it’s all around us.

A big problem in drinking water

Arsenic is a natural earth element found in soil and water. However, it is also a man-made contaminant that enters soil, water, and the air near some farms, factories, and mines due to the chemicals used in these businesses and hazardous sites.

Arsenic has no nutritional benefit. In fact, it’s toxic. People get arsenic in their bodies from drinking contaminated water, eating plants grown in contaminated soil, and breathing in dust and air near hazardous sites.

Too much arsenic in the body can lead to heart disease, diabetes, skin lesions, problems with brain development in babies and young children, and some cancers.

Navas-Acien and other scientists at Columbia have studied the health effects of arsenic exposure in drinking water. They found links to lung cancer, prostate cancer, and pancreatic cancer. In other studies, arsenic has also been related to bladder cancer, liver cancer, and skin cancer.

Arsenic exposure doesn’t affect everyone equally.

While anyone can be harmed by arsenic exposure, certain people are at higher risk, and it often depends on where they live.

“We are all vulnerable, but some people are more exposed to arsenic pollution than others. It’s an issue of environmental justice,” says Navas-Acien. People who live and work in certain parts of the Midwest and the Southwest of the United States have the most arsenic exposure.

“I am very interested in looking at who is exposed to environmental carcinogens and how we can prevent those exposures so that we can really prevent more people from developing cancer,” says Navas-Acien.

Members of her team uncovered that Hispanic/Latino-American, American Indian, and Alaska Native communities, as well as small communities, have the most exposure to arsenic in the US. The same groups of people are also exposed to more uranium than anyone else.

When certain groups are more exposed to toxic chemicals than others, this is an inequality. “Inequalities are often the result of environmental racism, really of concern for us,” says Navas-Acien.

The goal of this research is to have action-oriented evidence to convince lawmakers and politicians to protect everyone, especially the most vulnerable.

For more information about environmental factors and cancer, check out Columbia Cancer’s recent article on Dr. Navas-Acien’s work.


Ana Navas-Acien, MD, PhD, MPH, is a professor of environmental sciences at Columbia.