Cutaneous manifestations of chronic arsenicism: review of seventeen cases

J Am Acad Dermatol. 1998 Feb;38(2 Pt 1):179-85. doi: 10.1016/s0190-9622(98)70596-1.


Background: Cutaneous complications arising from exposure to Chinese proprietary medicines known to contain inorganic arsenic have been rarely reported.

Objective: Our purpose was to study the nature, incidence, and sequelae of patients with chronic arsenicism and to review the literature on arsenic-induced skin diseases.

Methods: Case records of patients with cutaneous lesions related to chronic arsenicism seen from January 1990 to December 1996 were reviewed. Patients were interviewed and a complete skin and systemic examination was performed. Data on demography, history of arsenic ingestion, and type and distribution of skin lesions and visceral malignancy were collated.

Results: Seventeen Chinese patients (11 men, six women) were identified; their mean age was 64.5 years. Fourteen patients (82%) had exposure to Chinese proprietary medicines known to contain inorganic arsenic, and three had environmental arsenic exposure from well water. The mean age of these 14 patients was 17.6 years; mean duration of arsenic intake was 6.4 years. Seventeen patients had Bowen's disease; of these, 70% had 2 to 10 lesions. Of the 17 patients with arsenical keratoses on the palms, 76% had 2 to 10 lesions. Of the 14 patients (82%) with plantar arsenical keratoses, 64% had 11 to more than 50 lesions. Eleven patients (65%) had macular hypopigmentation. Seven patients (41%) had 11 squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs); three of the seven had more than one lesion. Fifty-five percent of SCCs arose from preexisting keratotic lesions (n = 4) or Bowen's disease (n = 2), and 45% arose de novo. One patient each (6%) had multiple basal cell carcinomas, laryngeal carcinoma, and metastatic SCC. The latency periods for the development of arsenical keratoses, Bowen's disease, and SCC were 28, 39, and 41 years, respectively. Patients with SCC were significantly older at the start of arsenic exposure and had significantly more palmar arsenical keratoses than those without SCC.

Conclusion: Exposure to Chinese proprietary medicines containing inorganic arsenic poses a risk for the development of cutaneous and systemic malignancies. Long-term follow-up is necessary for tumor detection because of long latency periods. Surveillance programs are important to restrict the sale of Chinese proprietary medicines that may contain inorganic arsenic.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Arsenic Poisoning*
  • Bowen's Disease / chemically induced
  • Bowen's Disease / pathology
  • Carcinoma, Basal Cell / chemically induced
  • Carcinoma, Basal Cell / pathology
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / chemically induced
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / pathology
  • Chronic Disease
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Medicine, Chinese Traditional
  • Middle Aged
  • Skin Diseases / chemically induced*
  • Skin Diseases / pathology
  • Skin Neoplasms / chemically induced
  • Skin Neoplasms / pathology