Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that is widely distributed in the Earth’s crust. Arsenic is classified chemically as a metalloid, having both properties of a metal and a nonmetal; however, it is frequently referred to as a metal. Elemental arsenic (sometimes referred to as metallic arsenic) is a steel grey solid material. However, arsenic is usually found in the environment combined with other elements such as oxygen, chlorine, and sulfur. Arsenic combined with these elements is called inorganic arsenic. Arsenic combined with carbon and hydrogen is referred to as organic arsenic.
Most inorganic and organic arsenic compounds are white or colorless powders that do not evaporate. They have no smell, and most have no special taste.
Inorganic arsenic occurs naturally in soil and in many kinds of rock, especially in minerals and ores that contain copper or lead. When these ores are heated in smelters, most of the arsenic goes up the stack and enters the air as a fine dust. Smelters may collect this dust and take out the arsenic as a compound called arsenic trioxide (As2O3). However, arsenic is no longer produced in the United States; all of the arsenic used in the United States is imported.
Presently, about 90% of all arsenic produced is used as a preservative for wood to make it resistant to rotting and decay. The preservative is copper chromated arsenate (CCA) and the treated wood is referred to as “pressure-treated.” In 2003, U.S. manufacturers of wood preservatives containing arsenic began a voluntary transition from CCA to other wood preservatives that do not contain arsenic in wood products for certain residential uses, such as play structures, picnic tables, decks, fencing, and boardwalks. This phase out was completed on December 31, 2003; however, wood treated prior to this date could still be used and existing structures made with CCA-treated wood would not be affected. CCA-treated wood products continue to be used in industrial applications. It is not known whether, or to what extent, CCA-treated wood products may contribute to exposure of people to arsenic.
In the past, inorganic arsenic compounds were predominantly used as pesticides, primarily on cotton fields and in orchards. Inorganic arsenic compounds can no longer be used in agriculture. However, organic arsenic compounds, namely cacodylic acid, disodium methylarsenate (DSMA), and monosodium methylarsenate (MSMA), are still used as pesticides, principally on cotton. Some organic arsenic compounds are used as additives in animal feed. Small quantities of elemental arsenic are added to other metals to form metal mixtures or alloys with improved properties. The greatest use of arsenic in alloys is in lead-acid batteries for automobiles. Another important use of arsenic compounds is in semiconductors and light-emitting diodes.