Use of Arsenicals for Treatment of Human Ailments

In about 2000 BC, arsenic trioxide, extracted by smelting copper, was used as a main source of arsenic to be used as drug and poison. Aristotle (384 – 382 BC) and Pliny the Elder (23 – 79 AD) also described the use of arsenicals for medicinal purposes and Galen (130 – 200 AD) suggested the use of arsenic supplied to treat ulcers. Paracelsus (1493 – 1541) on the other hand used the elemental form of arsenic extensively and said “All substances are poisons . . . The right dose differentiates between a poison and a remedy”. In the 18th century, the Fowler’s solution (1% potassium arsenite) became very popular to treat several ailments and remained so, for over 150 years. But at the beginning and during the 19th century arsenicals were ingested, inhaled, injected through muscles, and were given in enemas while causing the fashionable “milk and rose” complexion. They were very common in treating acne caused by iodides and bromides and later used to prevent bromide eruptions by adding arsenicals to bromide containing mixtures. At the beginning of 20th century, in medical practices arsenicals became very popular to treat malaria, pellagra, vaginal discharge of any kind, Pharmacopoeia, syphilis. In today’s medical industry, arsenicals are in use to treat sleeping sickness, acute promyelocytic leukemia, tumors, cancer, etc. Arsenicals find no nutritional role in humans (not today but may be in future it may find a use to treat lethal diseases of today) but can be used in animal husbandry to control disease and promote growth.

Use of Arsenicals in Agriculture
In agricultural aspects, in the beginning of 1970s, the use of arsenic compounds was for the purposes related to production of preservatives for woods, sheep dips, herbicides, insecticides, etc. For example, 70% of arsenic was consumed in production of wood preservatives but its use was banned by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But many other arsenic based compounds were in use for purposes such as for drying – out the plants before harvesting, in golf courses, cotton fields, etc. which were deregulated by EPA afterwards. Today, except weed – killers for cotton, no other such arsenic based compounds are in use. As these compounds are highly toxic, they might cause headache, dizziness, vomiting, profuse watery diarrhea, followed by dehydration, fall in blood pressure, paralysis and risk of death, etc.

Effect of Arsenicals in Health and Dietary of Humans
In addition to above effects, the use of arsenicals cannot be underestimated in today’s world where people can be exposed to arsenic through drinking water, food, etc. where arsenic based unknown compound strongly influence the toxicity level especially in food where they can chemically bind themselves to proteins, fats, and starches. For instance, arsenosugars found in seafoods can transform itself into dimethylarsinic acid (DMA) in the stomach or small intestine with the help of stomach’s harsh acidic conditions and turn it toxic! In 2001, according to EPA, an average adult in the United States took 10 Fg/day of inorganic arsenic from food they ate (Note: only inorganic arsenic which excludes various organic – bound forms). Hence, it is important to take care that people are exposed to such arsenic based diets only in a very limited amount.

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