It’s been called “the mother of all poisons.” You can't taste arsenic and you can’t smell it, which is why it’s been the poison of choice for centuries.
“During the Middle Ages it was called the succession powder,” says Jerome Nriagu, professor emeritus of public health at the University of Michigan.
“That’s the way people got rid of the kings and queens if they wanted to become the king or queen themselves,” he said.
Arsenic, in very high doses, can kill you.
But arsenic is a naturally occurring element and doctors and scientists like Nriagu are working hard to understand how arsenic affects us today.
A family experiences mysterious health problems
Renee Thompson and her family were sick for three years without having any idea why.
“My children and my husband all became very ill after we moved into the house we had in Ortonville,” she said.
At the time, Thompson had recently given birth to her third child, Danica.
“My son was six, and he started to have severe chest pains, while my older daughter had headaches,” Thompson said. “My husband had GI bleeding, and I had become very fatigued with headaches and skin problems.”
Listen to Thompson explain what her family experienced:
Mysterious illness is hard to diagnose
Twelve different doctors examined her family. They were tested for cancer, lupus, and all kinds of other things, but the results were always negative.
Finally, Thompson saw the 13th doctor.
Dr. Edward Adler is an internal medicine doctor at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak. He said the symptoms he saw in Thompson reminded him of a case of arsenic poisoning he’d dealt with years before. He also said the symptoms of arsenic poisoning can mimic a lot of other things, so it’s hard to diagnose.
“I thought, ‘what test hadn’t been done?’ And I wondered about the possibility of heavy metal poisoning,” said Adler.
Adler ordered a 24-hour urine arsenic test. When the results came back, Thompson’s arsenic level was right at the edge of what was considered normal at the time. But Adler felt it was still just too high.
“So I talked with her about it and said the arsenic level sounds like it’s higher than it should be,” he said. “I asked her where this could have come from?”
Meanwhile, Renee Thompson began researching arsenic online. She learned more about how it can end up in your body.
“I found out that it was in the groundwater,” Thompson said. “We then checked the water in the house and we found that we had high levels of arsenic in our well water.”
Her family stopped drinking the well water and within two weeks they started to feel better.
Thompson says she felt a huge sense of relief.
“You go through all of that and you’re so sick, and your kids are sick, and you watch them suffer,” she said. “And you just [think], ‘let me know what it is so that whatever it is I can deal with it and fix it.’ ”
Thompson said that after working with Dr. Adler she was excited because there was hope.
“I had no hope before that,” she said.
Listen to Dr. Edward Adler explain how he considers arsenic exposure when seeing new patients:
Reasons to test your well water
Today Thompson and her family live in a different house and they still drink well water. But they have a reverse osmosis system to take out the arsenic.
Keep in mind, all of this happened 20 years ago, in the 1990s. But the arsenic problem in Michigan has not gone away. In certain parts of Michigan – especially in the Thumb – if you’re on a private well, you could have elevated levels of arsenic in your water. Michigan is one of several states with unusually high arsenic levels in groundwater.
A simple test can tell you whether your well water is above the federal drinking water standard. You want to test that water because arsenic has been linked to several kinds of cancer and other serious health effects.
Go here for more information about how to test your well in Michigan.
This story is part of our week-long series on arsenic in Michigan's groundwater. Tomorrow, we'll find out what the experts know about where this arsenic is, and how it can affect our health.
*This story was reported in partnership with David Heath from the Center for Public Integrity and produced as part of a collaboration among the Center for Public Integrity, The Center for Investigative Reporting and Michigan Radio. It was featured on Reveal, a new program from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.