Toasting friends and family with realgar wines and painting children's foreheads and limbs with the leftover realgar/alcohol slurries is an important customary ritual during the Dragon Boat Festival (DBF); a Chinese national holiday and ancient feast day celebrated throughout Asia. Realgar is an arsenic sulfide mineral, and source of highly toxic inorganic arsenic. Despite the long history of realgar use during the DBF, associated risk to human health by arsenic ingestion or percutaneous adsorption is unknown. To address this urine samples were collected from a cohort of volunteers who were partaking in the DBF festivities. The total concentration of arsenic in the wine consumed was 70 mg L⁻¹ with all the arsenic found to be inorganic. Total arsenic concentrations in adult urine reached a maximum of ca. 550 μg L⁻¹ (mean 220.2 μg L⁻¹) after 16 h post-ingestion of realgar wine, while face painting caused arsenic levels in children's urine to soar to 100 μg L⁻¹ (mean 85.3 μg L⁻¹) 40 h after the initial paint application. The average concentration of inorganic arsenic in the urine of realgar wine drinkers on average doubled 16 h after drinking, although this was not permanent and levels subsided after 28 h. As would be expected in young children, the proportions of organic arsenic in the urine remained high throughout the 88-h monitoring period. However, even when arsenic concentrations in the urine peaked at 40 h after paint application, concentrations in the urine only declined slightly thereafter, suggesting pronounced longer term dermal accumulation and penetration of arsenic. Drinking wines blended with realgar or using realgar based paints on children does result in the significant absorption of arsenic and therefore presents a potentially serious and currently unquantified health risk.
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