How Does Arsenic Kill People?

Arsenic is one of those ‘popular’ poisons (as poisons go) in that you see it often in films and on TV as one of the commonly chosen methods of homicide. We all know that arsenic isn’t good for us, but how does it actually affect the body and what should you do if your partner ever decides to slip it in your tea? (Other than file for a divorce…)

The Mechanism of Arsenic

Basically, arsenic works by disrupting the ability of our cells to produce ATP. ATP stands for ‘adenosine triphosphate’, this is what supplies our muscles and organs with energy. ATP is created in the mitochondria (the walls that surround the cells) by combining three adenosine molecules using powerful bonds and it’s when these bonds are broken down that energy is released for our bodies to turn into locomotive power.

Without the ability to produce ATP efficiently then, our bodies essentially become rapidly starved of energy, which affects not just our muscles, but also our internal organs which we need to stay alive.


The first sign of arsenic poison will be headaches, along with confusion, diarrhoea and drowsiness. Eventually this will lead to convulsions, vomiting (blood will be present in both the vomit and diarrhoea) and leukonychia striata (changes to the colour of your fingernails). Ultimately this leads to coma and death.


While this might sound pretty severe, the good news is that arsenic poisoning can be treated if it is caught early enough. This is possible using compounds that can absorb the arsenic and arsenic-containing chemicals from the blood – and some studies even suggest that garlic might be able to fulfil this role. However I would still very much recommend a rapid trip to the hospital…

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