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Press-Ons and Old Lace: Brittle Nails Could Be Sign of Arsenic Poisoning

Review on April 30, 2009

As the aging process commences, brittle nails are one of the first signs of approaching social security checks. The body loses its ability to retain water, leading to dry itchy skin, thinning hair, and brittle nails. Yet something far more sinister could be the cause: arsenic poisoning. A flood of case reports have been issued that show that brittle nails could indicate that one has been slowly poisoned with arsenic, be it in housing materials, the water supply, or slipped maliciously in one's after-dinner brandy.

brittle nails arsenic poison

More common however is the recently discovered link between inadvertent arsenic poisoning and prevalent nutritional supplements, most notably sea kelp, which can lead to brittle nails. In a 1998 report published by the California Department of Health, it was found that approximately 1/3 of traditional Asian medicines sold within the state contained some traces of heavy metals, including arsenic. While this heavy metal intoxication is difficult to impossible to detect, it is important for consumers to be on the lookout for early warning signs such as brittle nails.

Naturally as brittle nails are such a common condition, affecting up to 20% of women, there are other signs to look for before reaching a state of unnecessary panic. Brittle nails can also be caused by trauma to the nail bed, exposure to detergents, or of conditions such as low thyroid function. Arsenic poisoning usually manifests itself not only with brittle nails but with other symptoms, including fatigue, hair loss, and skin problems.

As always, experts urge patients suffering from any combination of these symptoms along with brittle nails to seek the advice of a health care professional. In light of these recent findings that sea kelp and other commonly ingested nutritional supplements may contain an unsafe concentration of arsenic, it may be worth mentioning this possibility to a doctor.

  • Amster, Eric. "Case Report: Potential Arsenic Toxicosis Secondary to Herbal Kelp Supplement," Environmental Health Perspectives. Vol. 115 (4); April 2007.
  • "Nail Abnormalities," Medline Medical Encyclopedia.