Arsenic Poisoning

  • Diagnosis
  • Pharmacogenetics
  • Background
  • Lab Tests
  • References
  • Related Topics
  • Videos

Indications for Testing

  • Known or suspected exposure to arsenic

Laboratory Testing

  • Acute exposure
    • Due to the short half-life of arsenic in the blood, urine is the preferred specimen for detection of exposure
      • Elevated results will be fractionated to differentiate between toxic inorganic forms and relatively nontoxic organic forms
    • Very recent exposure (<24 hours) – serum testing may be helpful
  • Chronic or past exposures (>3 weeks) – analysis of hair or nails is most useful in determining time of exposure
  • The Biological Exposure Index (BEI) established by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) for the sum of inorganic arsenic and methylated metabolites of arsenic is 35 µg/L
    • Clinical symptoms may not be evident at 35 µg/L; toxic thresholds are not well established
    • For specimens with a total concentration between 35-2,000 µg/L, fractionation is performed to determine proportion of organic, inorganic, and methylated forms
    • If low-level chronic poisoning is suspected, the µg/gCRT ratio may be more sensitive than total arsenic concentration
      • In some situations, it may be appropriate to fractionate specimens with a ratio >30 µg/gCRT despite a total arsenic concentration <35 µg/L
  • Met287Thr polymorphism of AS3MT gene
    • Associated with increase in toxic metabolite MMA in urine, reflecting increased concentrations in body
      • Increased MMA associated with genotoxic risk
      • Known association with cancer incidence and premalignant arsenic-induced skin lesions

Arsenic exposure can lead to acute and chronic intoxication with variable organ dysfunction.


  • Main routes of exposure – ingestion of arsenic-containing foods, water and beverages, or inhalation of contaminated air; therapeutic exposure may also result in toxicity
    • Arsenic is commonly found in fish and seafood and may also come from dietary supplements and well water
    • Several industries continue to use arsenic in the production of pesticides, preservatives, metal alloys, glasses, enamels, semiconductors, and other items
      • Exposure controls are required for workers at risk; arsenic intoxication is rare, except in suicides or accidents
    • Arsenic trioxide (Trisenox) is an FDA-approved treatment in acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) for relapse or for patients not achieving remission with standard chemotherapy


  • Arsenic exists in >30 chemical forms or species that can be grouped into inorganic, methylated, and organic fractions
    • Inorganic – occurs naturally in rocks, soil, and groundwater; also found in many synthetic products, poisons, and industrial processes
      • Toxic forms (trivalent and pentavalent) include arsenite or As(III) and arsenate or As(V)
    • Methylated – arises primarily from metabolism of inorganic species, but small amounts may arise directly from food
      • Toxic methylated compounds such as monomethylarsonic acid (MMA) and dimethylarsinic acid (DMA) are formed by hepatic metabolism of As(III) and As(V)
        • Methylated inorganic forms are considered less toxic than As(III) and As(V); however, they are eliminated more slowly (1-3 weeks)
    • Organic – arises primarily from food such as fish, seaweed, and shellfish
      • Relatively nontoxic organic forms (primarily arsenobetaine and arsenocholine) which are cleared rapidly (1-2 days)
        • Arsenobetaine, the most prevalent arsenic species in seafood, is a common cause for increased total arsenic concentration in urine because it is excreted unchanged for 1-2 days

Clinical Presentation

  • Relationship of clinical signs and symptoms to arsenic exposure depends on duration and extent of exposure to inorganic or methylated forms of arsenic and to the underlying clinical status of the patient
  • Acute exposure
    • May result in death
    • Best detected by urine; however, if exposure occurred within 24 hours or if patient cannot provide a urine specimen (eg, dialysis patient), arsenic can be detected in blood
    • Symptoms
      • Gastrointestinal – nausea, emesis, abdominal pain, rice-water diarrhea
      • Bone marrow – pancytopenia, anemia, basophilic stippling
      • Cardiovascular – electrocardiogram (ECG) changes (torsades de pointes)
      • Central nervous system – encephalopathy, polyneuropathy
      • Renal – renal insufficiency, renal failure
      • Hepatic – hepatitis
      • APL differentiation syndrome (APL patients receiving arsenic trioxide treatment)
        • Symptoms include fever, weight gain, pulmonary infiltrates, pleural or pericardial effusions
  • Chronic exposure
    • Dermatologic – Mees lines, hyperkeratosis, hyperpigmentation, alopecia
    • Hepatic – cirrhosis, hepatomegaly
    • Cardiovascular – hypertension, peripheral vascular disease
    • Central nervous system – stocking glove neuropathy, tremor
    • Malignancies – skin (squamous cell), hepatocellular, bladder, lung, renal
Tests generally appear in the order most useful for common clinical situations. Click on number for test-specific information in the ARUP Laboratory Test Directory.

Arsenic, Urine with Reflex to Fractionated 0025000
Method: Quantitative High Performance Liquid Chromatography/Quantitative Inductively Coupled Plasma-Mass Spectrometry

Arsenic, Fractionated, Urine 0020734
Method: Quantitative High Performance Liquid Chromatography/Quantitative Inductively Coupled Plasma-Mass Spectrometry

Arsenic, Blood 0099045
Method: Quantitative Inductively Coupled Plasma-Mass Spectrometry


Elevated results from noncertified trace element-free collection tubes may be due to contamination

Elevated concentrations of trace elements in blood should be confirmed with a second specimen collected in a tube designed for trace element determinations

General References

Hernández A, Marcos R. Genetic variations associated with interindividual sensitivity in the response to arsenic exposure. Pharmacogenomics. 2008; 9(8): 1113-32. PubMed

Hernández A, Paiva L, Creus A, Quinteros D, Marcos R. Micronucleus frequency in copper-mine workers exposed to arsenic is modulated by the AS3MT Met287Thr polymorphism. Mutat Res Genet Toxicol Environ Mutagen. 2014; 759: 51-5. PubMed

Jones FT. A broad view of arsenic. Poult Sci. 2007; 86(1): 2-14. PubMed

Rusyniak DE, Arroyo A, Acciani J, Froberg B, Kao L, Furbee B. Heavy metal poisoning: management of intoxication and antidotes. EXS. 2010; 100: 365-96. PubMed

Singh N, Kumar D, Sahu AP. Arsenic in the environment: effects on human health and possible prevention. J Environ Biol. 2007; 28(2 Suppl): 359-65. PubMed

Vahidnia A, van der Voet GB, de Wolff FA. Arsenic neurotoxicity--a review. Hum Exp Toxicol. 2007; 26(10): 823-32. PubMed

References from the ARUP Institute for Clinical and Experimental Pathology®

Bornhorst JA, Hunt JW, Urry FM, McMillin GA. Comparison of sample preservation methods for clinical trace element analysis by inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry. Am J Clin Pathol. 2005; 123(4): 578-83. PubMed

Hackenmueller SA, Strathmann FG. Total arsenic screening prior to fractionation enhances clinical utility and test utilization in the assessment of arsenic toxicity. Am J Clin Pathol. 2014; 142(2): 184-9. PubMed

Medical Reviewers

Grenache, David G., PhD, Medical Director, Special Chemistry; Co-Director, Electrophoresis and Manual Endocrinology; Chief Medical Director, Clinical Chemistry at ARUP Laboratories; Associate Professor of Clinical Pathology, University of Utah

McMillin, Gwendolyn A., PhD, DABCC (CC, TC), Medical Director of Toxicology and Pharmacogenomics at ARUP Laboratories; Professor of Clinical Pathology, University of Utah

Last Update: September 2017