Arsenic In Drinking Water May Contribute To H1N1 Complications

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
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Researchers raise concerns that low-level arsenic levels in drinking water may increase susceptibility to respiratory complications and pneumonia from H1N1 flu. Dartmouth scientists found that mice exposed to low levels of arsenic were not able to fight against H1N1, leading the researchers to believe that water contaminated with arsenic compromises immunity against H1N1 swine flu. The findings may explain deaths from pneumonia related to H1N1 (swine) flu.

Graduate student Courtney Kozul, lead author of the study says, "Hundreds of millions of people across the world are exposed to levels of arsenic above the recommended standard so the impact of arsenic exposure on the potential for a pandemic flu outbreak is of particular concern."

Kozul says the Dartmouth study is the first to link higher than safe arsenic levels to respiratory complications and pneumonia from H1N1 flu.

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Joshua Hamilton, the MBL's Chief Academic and Scientific Officer says, "When a normal person or mouse is infected with the flu, they immediately develop an immune response in which immune cells rush to the lungs and produce chemicals that help fight the infection. However, in mice that had ingested 100 ppb (parts per billion) arsenic in their drinking water for five weeks, the immune response to H1N1 infection was initially feeble, and when a response finally did kick in days later, it was too robust and too late”. The mice exposed to arsenic were more likely to die than mice infected with H1N1 not exposed to arsenic.

Arsenic is found in many areas in high concentrations than recommended by the EPA, including well water in Mexico. Arsenic is plentiful in areas of New England, Florida, large regions of the Upper Midwest, the Southwest, and the Rocky Mountains, present in unsafe levels in well water.

The researchers say they cannot say whether arsenic in drinking water contributes to H1N1 flu respiratory complications and pneumonia for certain, but the idea is “intriguing”. They do believe there are health consequences related to immune function from drinking water contaminated with arsenic, and there may be a correlation between arsenic in well water and pneumonia deaths in Mexico and in the US from H1N1 swine flu.

Environmental Health Perspectives (pdf)

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