What is Arsenic?

Arsenic (chemical formula: As), is a grey, shiny, crystalline metalloid. When burned, it gives off a blue flame, dense white fumes and a garlic-like odour. It loses its lustre when exposed to air and is insoluble in water. Arsenic is mostly found in minerals and is quite rare to find in nature in its free form, with China, Morocco and Russia being the top three producers in the world. It is a notoriously poisonous chemical and has been confirmed as carcinogenic to humans. 

What is Arsenic used for?

Because arsenic is a well known poison, compounds of the chemical are sometimes used in rat and insect poisons, under strict control. Arsenic is also added to chicken feed to promote their growth. This is an organic arsenic compound however, so it is considerably less toxic than the pure variant. Arsenic is often alloyed with lead to create a more durable type of metal. 

Arsenic was commonly used in medical treatments for many conditions until as recently as the 1950s, but nowadays it is only used to treat a certain type of leukemia. 

Arsenic can be also used to produce special glass as well as preserve wood, but pressure from environmental groups have meant these have been largely phased out. 

Arsenic Hazards

The routes of exposure for arsenic include inhalation, ingestion and skin and eye contact. 

Inhalation of arsenic may produce irritation of the respiratory tract, often resulting in inflammation. People already suffering with conditions such as emphysema or bronchitis may incur further disability when exposed to the chemical. 

Inhalation of freshly formed metal oxide particles may lead to “metal fume fever”, which is a respiratory tract condition that resembles the flu. Symptoms of this include; malaise, fever, weakness and nausea and may appear quickly if ventilation in the area is poor.

Ingestion of arsenic may be fatal. Symptoms of acute poisoning can include vomiting, diarrhoea and nausea and will normally develop within four hours. If a large amount of arsenic is ingested, shock, rapid pulse and a coma may develop with death to follow within 24 hours. 

Whilst skin contact with arsenic can result in inflammation and irritation of the skin characterised by redness and swelling, the more serious systemic effects are those that may occur following absorption and entry into the bloodstream. 

Direct eye contact with arsenic may cause redness and tearing. Slight abrasive damage may also result. 

Arsenic is famously poisonous and exposure must be minimised
Arsenic is famously poisonous and exposure must be minimised 

Arsenic Safety

If inhaled, remove the patient from the contaminated area to the nearest fresh air source and monitor their breathing. Lay the patient down and keep them warm and rested. If the patient is not breathing and you are qualified to do so, perform CPR. Seek medical attention without delay. 

If swallowed, a dose of at least 3 tablespoons of activated charcoal in water should be taken. Vomiting might be recommended, however it should be avoided if possible due to the aspiration risks. If vomiting does occur, lean the patient forward or place them on their left side to maintain open airways and prevent aspiration. Seek medical attention without delay. 

If skin exposure occurs, immediately remove all contaminated clothing, footwear and accessories and cleanse the affected area with plenty of soap and water. Seek medical attention in the event of irritation. 

If the chemical is exposed to the eyes, flush the eyes out immediately with fresh running water for at least 15 minutes, remembering to wash under the eyelids. Removal of contact lenses should only be done by a skilled individual. Do not attempt to remove any particles attached to or embedded in the eye. Seek urgent medical attention.

Arsenic Safety Handling

Emergency eyewash fountains should be accessible in the immediate area of the potential exposure to the chemical and adequate ventilation should be available (a local exhaust designed to handle explosive dust should be installed if necessary).

The PPE recommended when handling arsenic includes safety glasses with side shields, chemical goggles, PVC gloves, respirators, protective suits and safety footwear/gumboots.

Leather items such as shoes, belts and watch bands must be removed and destroyed if they have been contaminated with arsenic. 

Your SDS will contain more comprehensive information on the occupational health and safety practices you should follow when handling arsenic. Contact us at to see how we can help with this. 

Chemwatch has the largest collection of SDS in the world. For a FREE copy of the Chemwatch-authored SDS for Arsenic, click the button below.