Selenium (Se) is an element that cannot be created or destroyed, but its form can be altered. It’s a naturally occurring mineral that can be released into the environment by a natural geological process or due to some human related activity. Agricultural soil that’s well fertilized may contain up as much as 400mg of selenium per ton, it can be added as a trace nutrient and it’s often naturally present in many phosphate fertilizers. We need trace amounts of selenium in our diet for good health, but if too much is consumed, it can lead to a number of health related issues. Let’s take a closer look at how selenium in your food and drinking water could affect your health.

How Does Selenium Enter Our Drinking Water and Food Supplies?

Selenium levels can increase as deposits left behind in waste combine with air and settle into the soil. If the acidity levels in that soil and the oxygen levels are high, the mobile forms of selenium can be increased. These types of conditions are typical in certain industrial process and agricultural activities. When selenium is more mobile the chances of exposure are raised, and there are six main factors that will determine selenium mobility.

  • Water soluble selenium concentration levels.
  • The time of year.
  • The soil temperature.
  • Microbial activity levels.
  • The organic matter content.
  • The level of moisture.

As the level of selenium mobility is increased, it will travel through the soil faster and eventually it will seep into groundwater. The water containing the elevated levels of selenium will then enter the surface water supplies and eventually make its way into our domestic water.

How Can Selenium Affect Human Health?

Any exposure to selenium will typically take place when drinking water or eating good. It’s possible to become exposed if a person is in contact with air or soil that contains an elevated concentration of selenium, but this is less common. In order to meet our daily dietary needs, selenium can be naturally found in meat, grains, and cereals. These trace amounts are sufficient to fulfill our needs and prevent any health problems related to a selenium deficiency.

If fertilizers rich in selenium have been used in the production of your food the uptake may be higher than expected. If you live in an agricultural area or near a hazardous waste site, there is also an increased risk of selenium exposure. The nearby soil and air may contain elevated levels of selenium, and there will be a greater chance that local water supplies are contaminated.

Consuming too much selenium can cause a number of health issues, such as brittle hair, nail deformities, skin irritation, swelling and severe bouts of pain. If the eyes are exposed to selenium they can be irritated, they may tear up, and there could be an accompanying burning sensation.

What Can You Do?

Public water treatment measures are in place to remove selenium, but they can be rendered ineffective by breaks in the pipes after treatment. A variety of contaminants, including selenium, can enter the water anywhere between the treatment plant and your home. For this reason, many homeowners install their own domestic water treatment systems to ensure that they get access to clean water for their homes.

By EcoWater Systems.
EcoWater Systems of Nebraska is the largest water treatment company in the state and is a member of Water Quality Association.