arsenic

Arsenic concentration in groundwater of Uttar Pradesh shown by red, green, and blue circles. The places marked in green are bad, and those in red are dangerous. For arsenic in drinking water, the permissible and acceptable limits are 0.01 mg/l and 0.05 mg/l,  respectively. It is difficult to remove it from water. Thus 0.01mg/l level is regarded as “lower but still concerning level” as per WHO.

(Source of Map: Umashankar Mishra, Science writer.)

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A study has found that as many as 2.34 crore people in rural areas of Uttar Pradesh (UP) are exposed to high levels of arsenic in groundwater. A total of 40 districts in the state are exposed to high concentration of arsenic in groundwater, downtoearth.org.reported; details are given below. (mercury discussed separately.)

The ‘double-engine’ Modi-Adityanath had promised many things, Sab ka Vikas: but the  ‘development’ for all could not ensure potable drinking water to all.  

While excess Fluoride is a slow poison, Arsenic is a deadly poison spreading in  most of the Gangetic-Brahmaputra  belt. More than one lakh villages exist in this danger zone that includes UP; it does not mean every village is necessarily affected. Some have multiple contaminants like fluoride and arsenic. Mercury complicates further.

Health risks are higher with multiple contaminants compounded by poverty and malnutrition.      

This is part-2 of an article on UP’s Drinking Water problems, focused on contamination by high arsenic, mercury etc. Part-1 dealt with high fluoride.

Of the total 75 districts in UP , even as per May, 2019 official data of the UP’s Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation, 25 districts are affected by high arsenic      ( while 63 districts have fluoride above the permissible limit). Though these official figures are lower than 40 districts mentioned in the above study, they are significant by themselves. Numbers by different Govt agencies do not exactly tally, as criteria and dates vary. They are better taken as indicative of a grave situation.

Earlier, on 09.02.2017, 31 districts of UP were listed for fluoride, and equal number for Arsenic. For other heavy metals like lead, chromium and cadmium, 17 districts were listed. Number of affected habitations in UP, as elsewhere, shot up and is shown as 179 for fluoride, and 748 for Arsenic  in the reply to Loksabha given on on 20/07/2017. Varanasi, promised by PM Modi to be converted into heaven on earth, features both for Fluoride and heavy metals.  This is so despite hundreds of crores of rupees pumped in there.

FMRRC has been studying high fluoride, particularly in Karnataka. About other contaminants and places, we learn more from others’ reports.

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downtoearth.org.in reported in 2019  :

A new study has found that as many as 2.34 crore people in rural areas of Uttar Pradesh are exposed to high levels of arsenic in groundwater.

Forty districts in the state are exposed to high concentration of arsenic in groundwater. The worst-affected:

  • Balia
  • Barabankhi
  • Gorakhpur
  • Ghazipur
  • Gonda
  • Faizabad
  • Lakhimpur Kheri

Most of these areas are in the floodplains of Ganga, Rapti and Ghaghara rivers.

Ten other districts with moderate risk of arsenic contamination are:

  • Shahjahanpur
  • Unnao
  • Chandauli
  • Varanasi
  • Pratapgarh
  • Kushinagar
  • Mau
  • Balrampur
  • Deoria
  • Siddharthnagar

About 78 per cent of the population in the state lives in rural areas and depends on ground water for irrigation, drinking, cooking and other domestic use. The risk of exposure to arsenic is much higher in rural areas than cities as piped water supply is not available in most villages.

Groundwater samples were tested using arsenic testing kits and findings were then validated in laboratory. In all, 1,680 groundwater samples from different regions of the state were analysed. Using these inputs, researchers developed a map of arsenic-affected regions reflecting the risk due to arsenic contamination.

Twenty parameters that affect arsenic level in groundwater such as land cover, aquifer depth, chemical and biological structure of soil, drainage system etc were evaluated.

“The risk map indicates the need for a widespread testing of wells in various regions of Uttar Pradesh. It could be helpful in reducing long-term exposure of people residing in highly populated clusters to arsenic. Within these identified regions, districts like Ballia, Varanasi, Gazipur, Gorakhpur, Faizabad, and Deoria are evidently experiencing a public health crisis due to arsenic exposure,”  said Dr. Chander Kumar Singh, who led the study at the TERI School of Advanced Studies.

Researchers tested groundwater samples using arsenic testing kits, and subsequently confirmed the findings in laboratory tests. In all, they analysed 1,680 groundwater samples from different regions of the state. Using these inputs, they developed a map of arsenic-affected regions reflecting the risk due to arsenic contamination.

The contamination was evaluated on 20 parameters, including land cover, aquifer depth, chemical and biological structure of soil and drainage system.

(Umashankar Mishra writes for India Science Wire and tweets at @usm_1984)

https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/water/high-levels-of-arsenic-found-in-groundwater-in-up-64851

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Natural contamination of groundwater with arsenic poses a health threat in many regions where people rely on hand pumps or tube wells for drinking water. Arsenic exposure has cause skin lesions, skin cancer, bladder, lungs and cardiovascular diseases as well as reduced intellectual function in children.

UP is the largest Indian State, with a population of over 200 million, i.e., equal to around three big countries of Europe. 70 percent of its population is rural, dependent on ground water for drinking, and that is not regularly tested.

UP supplied most of India’s prime ministers ever since 1947, the latest being Narendra Modi, the Gujarati leader who chose to be elected to Loksabha from the ‘sacred town Varanasi, along sacred river Ganga’ in UP.

‘Sacred’ but the waters are not pure, not safe, not potable.

Legislative Assembly elections are scheduled to be held in UP from 10 February to 7 March 2022 in seven phases to elect all 403 members : the results will be declared on 10 March 2022.

The polity, hence the big media,  is lost amidst rapacious political forces working 24x7x365 to grab and retain power with no concern for the well-being of the people, more so the toiling masses. Amidst so many ‘welfare schemes’, and huge budgets, meant more to swindle funds than to deliver goods, the most serious problem of drinking water,  of fluorosis, and of arsenicosis,   continues to be neglected, despite the Indian State admitting its seriousness.

UP Assembly had polls in 2017 with a turnout of 61percent and BJP got 39.67 of polled vote, and formed the govt., part of a ‘double-engine’ promised by PM Modi. He said UP was let down by all parties, and assured the State would turn a new leaf. BJP had ruled UP earlier too.

Namami Gange Programme, an integrated conservation mission, was approved as the flagship programme by the government in June 2014 with a budget outlay of Rs. 20,000 crore.  But the drinking water issue in UP remains unresolved, even as the ‘double-engine’ team seeks another mandate.

“ I was hoping things would change, but nothing has,” said a villager, from one of hundreds of villages that are denied safe water for years. It is affected due to a cocktail of contaminants in their groundwater, the only source of drinking water for millions.

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Key facts about Arsenic as per WHO

Arsenicosis

Pic of Arsenicosis : typical skin conditions leading upto cancers. With hands and legs of toiling classes so impaired, what kind of India is sought to be built?  

Arsenic is highly toxic, carcinogenic. In addition to skin cancer, long-term exposure to arsenic may also cause cancers of the bladder and lungs., and the most important action in affected communities is the prevention of further exposure to arsenic by provision of a safe water supply, says WHO.

Long-term effects : The first symptoms of long-term exposure to high levels of inorganic arsenic (for example, through drinking-water and food) are usually observed in the skin, and include pigmentation changes, skin lesions and hard patches on the palms and soles of the feet (hyperkeratosis). These occur after a minimum exposure of approximately five years and may be a precursor to skin cancer.

It has also been associated with cardiovascular disease and diabetes. In utero and early childhood exposure has been linked to negative impacts on cognitive development and increased deaths in young adults.

Arsenic is naturally present at high levels in the groundwater of a number of countries.   Inorganic arsenic is a confirmed carcinogen and is the most significant chemical contaminant in drinking-water globally… Arsenic can also occur in an organic form. Inorganic arsenic compounds (such as those found in water) are highly toxic while organic arsenic compounds (such as those found in seafood) are less harmful to health.

The most important action in affected communities is the prevention of further exposure to arsenic by the provision of a safe water supply for drinking, food preparation and irrigation of food crops.

In addition to skin cancer, long-term exposure to arsenic may also cause cancers of the bladder and lungs. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified arsenic and arsenic compounds as carcinogenic to humans, and has also stated that arsenic in drinking-water is carcinogenic to humans.

Other adverse health effects that may be associated with long-term ingestion of inorganic arsenic include developmental effects, diabetes, pulmonary disease, and cardiovascular disease. Arsenic-Arsenic- induced myocardial infarction, in particular, can be a significant cause of excess mortality.

Arsenic is also associated with adverse pregnancy outcomes and infant mortality, with impacts on child health (1), and exposure in utero and in early childhood has been linked to increases in mortality in young adults due to multiple cancers, lung disease, heart attacks, and kidney failure (2). Numerous studies have demonstrated negative impacts of arsenic exposure on cognitive development, intelligence, and memory (3).

(https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/arsenic)

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Crippling And Killing Fields of Sonbhadra, Gold only in name

The Sonbhadra dt in UP grabbed headlines after reports surfaced that gold reserves were discovered in Sone Hill and Hardi areas in the district. The district, which borders four states, is an industrial area. Many minerals such as bauxite, limestone, coal and gold are already present in its soil. There are also many power plants in Sonbhadra and the 10 coal-based power plants in the Singrauli-Sonbhadra region generate 21,000 MW of power supplied to the nearest states.

Providing revenue of about Rs 27,198 crore from mining every year to the UP government, Sonbhadra, however, has an often hidden, dark side.

Ground reality of multiple contaminants is discussed below :  

Abstract of a scientific paper by Ahamad, A, Raju, N. J. and Madhav, S , lists  Arsenic, mercury and lead among the dangerous contaminants in Sonbhadra, and reads as follows:

“The present study region, known as “Energy capital of India”, is dominated by several thermal power plant and coal mining activities. This study highlights to assess the pollution load of groundwater with reference to heavy metals (i.e. As, Hg, Cr, Cd, Fe, Cu, Mn, Co, Zn, Ni and Pb) and associated potential health risk by its consumption to local residents of Obra, Renukoot and Anpara industrial clusters of Southern Sonbhadra, by collecting 220 groundwater samples for post- and pre-monsoon seasons in the year 2015.

“ Results show that few of the heavy metals in majority of the samples are exceeding the limit of WHO and BIS, which indicates that most of the water samples in all the three clusters are highly contaminated with Fe, Pb, Cd, Cr, As and Hg in both the seasons. Almost all samples in Caboi plot fall within the near-neutral-high metal field in both the seasons. Mean values of heavy metal pollution index (HPI) of the three clusters were found above the critical index in both the seasons. Target hazard quotient (THQ) values of Cr, Cd, As, Hg and Pb in majority of the samples of the three clusters in both the seasons display more than unity which indicate significant noncarcinogenic risk (NCR). Based on the hazard index (HI) value, children are more susceptible for health impairment than the adults. The carcinogenic risk (CR) for Cr, Pb and As was found very high than the prescribed (10-4 -10-6) tolerant safe guideline of cancer risk and shows higher risk for adult than children.

(Heavy metal contamination in groundwater and associated human health risk in the industrial region of southern Sonbhadra, Uttar Pradesh, India)

https://ui.adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2018AGUFMGH33C1264A/abstract

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Mercury Pollution in Sonbhadra: Lung Disorders, TB and Cancer

The All India Institute of Ayurveda (AIIA) had taken a number of samples from certain villages of Sonbhadra-Singrauli in the year 2018. According to its report, about 20 lakh people living in Sonbhadra-Singrauli area, spread over an area of 40 kms, are reeling under mercury pollution. This is causing health issues like miscarriages in women, diseases like anemia and BP. There is no fruit in the orchards, the crop production is declining.

The Central Pollution Control Board had placed Sonbhadra in the list of 22 severely polluted areas for the year 2018. The report had said that mercury, which is among the six most polluting concerns of the Earth, permeates its air. Fly ash is believed to be responsible for this. Last year, when Delhi was reeling under severe pollution, its air quality index was actually worse than Delhi. It still is.

gaonconnection.com reported extensively on drinking water related issues.

https://en.gaonconnection.com/sonbhadra-the-darker-aspect-of-the-golden-glow/

In Sonbhadra, the fly ash emanating from coal mines is causing fatal diseases like cancer in the people. As per the National Green Authority Act (NGT) Act, enacted to address matters relating to environmental protection and conservation of forests and natural estates across the country, heavy metals such as arsenic, silica, aluminium and iron in fly ash can cause asthma, lung disorders, TB and cancer.

Companies Are Still Not Complying With NGT’s Order

The coal-based power plants in the Singrauli-Sonbhadra belt, located on the border of UP and Madhya Pradesh, consume 103 million tonnes of coal in a year. The consumption of such a large quantity of coal produces about 35 million tonnes of fly ash each year, which does not get proper disposal and has gotten concentrated in air, water and soil of the region.

India’s largest power generation plant, the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), Vindhyanchal’s giant ash dam (Rakhar Dam) at Shahpur gave away on October 6, 2019. In this dam, the ash (fly ash) is deposited after the burning of coal in the power plants.

  • The ash that emerged from the NTPC plant was about 35 metric tonnes (more than seven crore quintal) and was discharged into the Rihand Dam on Renuka River. The dam supplies drinking water to about 20 lakh people of Sonbhadra-Singrauli region. Such an act of gross negligence went largely unnoticed.
  • Additionally, coal vehicles are responsible for most of the road accidents in this tract. “I have sought information from several police stations. Last year, there were a total of 450 accidents in Sonbhadra-Singrauli strip in which 119 people lost their lives and 474 people were seriously injured, ” wrote a reporter.

coal

Because of the presence of coal mines, the pollution here has crossed all its limits. It is making people sick.

Jagatnarayan of Sonbhadra continues to work tirelessly on pollution issues. He has also gone to the Supreme Court. Taking cognizance of his petition, the NGT visited the plants of Singrauli and Sonbhadra in the year 2014. After inspecting the area, the NGT had given strict orders, from the environmental point of view, that the ash from power plants must be provided 100% disposal. However, companies are still not complying with this order.

Talking about fluorosis, he said: “I have visited hundreds of villages, so far, to make people aware. In the meantime, wherever I went, I drank common water. I knew it was dangerous but there was no other option for me. Now I regret it.”

He added: “In the year 2016, Vanwasi Sewa Ashram conducted a survey in nearby villages. Then we came to know that the villages of Parwakundwari Piparwan, Jhirgadandi in Chopan block, Manbasa, Kathouti, Malauli, Katauli, Jharokalan, Duddhi villages in block Duddhi, Kusamaha, Govindpur, Khairahi, Rasprahari, Barvantola, Piparhawa, Sevkadand, Khamaharaya, Harawariya, Jhara, Navatola, Rajmilam, Dudhar, Chetwa, Nemna villages in Myorepur block and Bakulia, Barbai, Gughari and Khairadih villages in Babhuni block have their inhabitants suffering ill health due to fluoride.”

Ashwani Kumar Dubey, an environmentalist and Supreme Court lawyer, said: “See, Sonbhadra-Singrauli already suffers from serious environmental issues. The guidelines of the Court and the government are not adhered to, here. With the discovery of gold mines, it is obvious that the land will be dug up for gold, trees will also be cut, it will cause further environmental decay. Gold must be extracted, but it should not harm the nature.”

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About 20 lakh people living in Sonbhadra-Singrauli area, are reeling under pollution of multiple contaminants

Hamara paani ka bahut takleef hai, aur yeh jindagi bhar ka takleef hai (We face a lot of water problems, and this problem is lifelong),” Devi told Gaon Connection.

https://en.gaonconnection.com/40-women-in-rural-households-work-harder-to-fetch-water-in-the-covid-19-lockdown-gaon-connection-survey/

women

They are not old-aged women, but are women crippled by water contaminations etc. “Accursed Country : Upriver from Benares, ask Sonbhadra’s people about the price of development. It shows on their bodies, “says an old Report in outlookindia.com weekly magazine (10 November 2014).  Sonbhadra pointed to high levels of mercury and fluoride in the air and water . See more about Sonbhadra below.  (https://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/accursed-county/292455)

The above is an old report we had published earlier. Now we shall see the recent gaonconnection.com report.

1

“Hundreds of people like me who are getting old in their youth,” said Jagat Narayan Vishwakarma, seen in the photo above. He lives in the Myorepur block of Sonbhadra dt in UP.  “My bones are getting weaker. Now I can walk only with crutches. The doctor has told me that because the amount of fluoride in my drinking water is very high, I suffer from fluorosis.” He has also gone to the Supreme Court.                                   (Courtesy: gaonconnection.com)

  • He had identified the problem at least 20 years ago in 2001. “Work is being carried out on a war footing, ” said officials last year. That is war footing!
  • This is in a state that had a double engine sarkar, going in for another round…
  • We quote from a report, titled Sonbhadra: The darker aspect of the golden glow, of February 25th, 2020  by Mithilesh Dhar Dubey:
  • GP Shukla, Chief Engineer (rural) of Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam, the department responsible for providing drinking water to the people in UP, informed Gaon Connection, “Due to excessive tapping, the groundwater is depleting rapidly. Also, contaminated water emanating from factories is being released into rivers and is contaminating the groundwater. The state government is going to provide pipeline water in fluoride affected districts by March 2021. Work is being carried out on a war footing.”
  • In the Sonbhadra-Singrauli coal belt, areas with coal-fired thermal plants are known to have many contaminants, including high fluoride. But more deadly is mercury pollution, which is threatening the health of 20 lakh people.
  • Jagat Narayan informed, “In the year 2001, I found out that the water where I live is severely contaminated. People are becoming handicapped very rapidly. Five, six people were handicapped in one house. The investigation revealed that the amount of fluoride in the water here is very high, which is why people have fallen prey to a disease called fluorosis. I had raised the issue of pollution in Singrauli region and resolved to educate people about it, but today, I too stand as its victim.”
  • Before 2001, people of Sonbhadra district were unaware that the amount of fluoride in the water they drink is very high. Jagat Narayan had facilitated an examination of the disabled people of Kushmaha Raphari of Myorepur block. After their examination, it was learnt that the fluoride content in Sonbhadra water is so high that people are falling to fluorosis and are getting handicapped.
  • The 35-year-old Hira Lal, who lives in Shakshakti Nagar in Sonbhadra, is anxious because of his three-year-old child’s health. He said: “My son is only three years old. He has asthma. Most of the children living here suffer from asthma. We close the doors of our homes as soon as the evening sets in. We do not dry clothes on rooftops because they turn sooty.”
  • Hira Lal lives in Chilkatad village. The village is located just a few miles from the local site of Northern Coalfields Limited (NCL), a coal extraction company.
  • There are many families in the village whose generations are disabled.
  • ( https://en.gaonconnection.com/sonbhadra-the-darker-aspect-of-the-golden-glow/)

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Variable, And Defective Official Estimates

Contamination-wise Number Of Habitations affected  :

While districts involved (mentioned above) shows the extent of the problem, the intensity is known through number of  habitations and sources, obviously out of those tested. Not all are tested.  First the number of affected habitations, is under-stated  in the  parliament, as shown  here. Heavy metals not included:

 Total      Fluoride  Arsenic   Iron   Salinity    Nitrate                                                      

64094     13092      13536      19720   13837       1916          

Number of habitations cited above   has no relation with ground reality.  See the following reports :

National Rural Drinking Water Programme, Guidelines 2013, in the  Annexure XI  at section 1.0 Background  says :  Chemical contamination of drinking water, especially of Arsenic and Fluoride, is a major concern in drinking water supply. The number of habitations and population in States with at least one drinking water source affected with chemical contamination, as on 1.4.2011, is 1,21,501 habitations with 6.02 crore population.

The following shows  how variable, and defective, are estimates by the government itself. National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP), BACKGROUND PAPER says:

“Quality Problems faced in the Rural Water Supply Sector: As per the survey of quality affected habitations, based on 1% random sampling undertaken in 1991 and updated in 1999, a total of 2,16,794 habitations were found having water quality problems. A fresh survey was ordered in the year 2000 to be conducted in two phases by the States. The first phase required stratified random sampling of 10% of sources in Blocks, and in the second phase, testing of 100% sources in Blocks found affected during the first phase, was undertaken. As per the data received from the State Governments and consolidated in October 2004, 2,16,968 habitations are affected due to variety of water quality problems in their drinking water sources with following break-up:- Nature of Quality problem No. of affected habitations Excess Fluoride 31306, Excess Arsenic 5029, Excess Salinity 23495, Excess Iron 118088, Excess Nitrate 13958, Multiple quality problems 25092,  Total 216968.”

To build rural infrastructure, Bharat Nirman was launched by the Government of India in 2005 to be implemented in a period of four years from 2005-06 to 2008-09. Rural drinking water was one of the six components of Bharat Nirman. During the Bharat Nirman period, 55,067 un-covered and about 3.31 lakh slipped-back habitations were to be covered with provisions of drinking water facilities and 2.17 lakh quality-affected habitations were to be addressed for water quality problem. An investment of Rs. 22,462 crore under Central sector has been made on rural drinking water component during this period. As per latest reports, about 4.64 lakh habitations have been actually covered. In case of the remaining habitations, work has been either approved or taken up, and are at different stages of implementation. It is expected that by March, 2011, this task will be complete. While the progress of coverage reported was very impressive, rural water supply continues to be found wanting due to many reasons.

(http://mdws.gov.in/sites/default/files/BackgroundNote.pdf)

If you take the data for number of  ‘sources of water with single chemical contaminants’,  as per 2017-18 data of  the Ministry, 37145 sources are contaminated by fluoride above 1.5mg, and 8607 by Arsenic. This is apart from 56013 sources with “multiple contaminants” (Iron, Fluoride, salinity, nitrate and Arsenic). (Note criterion for F is 1.5mg, not 0.5mg recommended by experts.

 

Ground water depletion

Currently, 245 Billion Cubic Meter (BCM) of the 398 BCM of net annual ground water availability (62%) is being utilised. However, note that ground water development is not uniform across states in India.   It has exceeded 100% in some states such as Haryana (133%), Delhi (137%), and Punjab (172%).  This implies that the annual ground water utilisation in these states is higher than the net annual ground water availability.

The Ground Water Management and Regulation scheme was launched in 2008 with the aim to regulate and control the development of ground water resources of the country.

Over the past ten years, the expenditure on the scheme increased at an annual growth rate of 9%.  In 2020-21, the estimated expenditure is 13% more than the revised expenditure estimates of 2019-20.

The Standing Committee on Water Resources (2019-20) recommended the Ministry to increase the budgetary support for the scheme and formulate short term and long term policies and programmes in consultation with states.   The Committee also recommended the Ministry to constitute an Expert Committee for identifying specific regions with rapidly depleting groundwater levels.

State-wise details on number of habitations covered under National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP), as on December 9, 2019, were given. For UP it was claimed that 2,56,913 habitations were fully, and 1,950 partially covered: 1,155 Habitations with water quality issues were found. (Source:  Starred Question No. 351, Ministry of Jal Shakti, Lok Sabha; PRS).

Two years ago, in 2019, PM Modi announced the Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) to provide safe piped drinking water to every rural household in the country by 2024.

At the time of announcement of the scheme, only 4.78 million rural households in these states and UTs had tap water supply. According to the ministry, more than 2.9 million tap water connections were added to the number in 21 months.

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“Arsenic has entered the food chain”

“Arsenic has entered the food chain through irrigation water… it can cause cancer, mental retardation,” says Ashok Kumar Ghosh, Chairperson, Bihar State Pollution Control Board, and professor and Head of Department, Mahavir Cancer Institute and Research Centre, Patna, in an interview.

Though it is on Bihar, the questions are of general nature, and hence given below:

Is arsenic, which is a known carcinogen, getting into human bodies? How serious is the health concern? 

When I started research on the arsenic levels in groundwater, I was often asked what the symptoms were. At that time, the exposure of people to arsenic was still new. But, by the time I joined the Mahavir Cancer Centre in 2016, I saw many cancer patients and research confirmed that many of the cancers were linked to arsenic contamination.

More recently, we conducted a joint study as a part of an Indo-UK programme that came up with alarming findings.

In Bhagalpur, for example, we found that arsenic has entered the food chain through irrigation water. Potato, rice and wheat crops, which are most commonly consumed, contained elevated contents of arsenic. So, drinking water with high amounts of arsenic, and consuming food with elevated levels of arsenic will lead to an acute disease burden.

Where has the arsenic come from?

The source is from the Himalayas. There are lots of minerals there, among them is arsenopyrite, which is made up of iron and arsenic that is not water soluble. It is carried down by the waters from the mountains.

When the river meanders or changes its course, and people start living in those areas, the arsenopyrite is left behind and  people are exposed to it. The arsenopyrite ostensibly lies dormant without visibly harming anyone, but it has an impact.

But this was before the 1970s when people depended more on surface water from open wells etc., for their consumption. 

But after the 70s, UNICEF, WHO, etc., conducted studies where they found bacterial infections from surface water sources caused high infant mortality due to diarrhoea in third world countries (India was considered third world then). They were encouraged to go for handpumps. 

Soon handpumps became very popular. It was convenient, water was clean (arsenic is colourless, odourless and is not visible in the water) and easily accessed. Wells were abandoned and groundwater began to be overexploited, which has contributed to groundwater contamination with arsenic. (Similar was the case with fluorosis, see below.)

It is a thumb rule for us now. Wherever we detect high iron content, we know that chances of that area containing arsenic is high.

How does arsenic in the groundwater affect health?

Arsenic can wreak havoc on the human body. It can mess up the human body’s enzyme system and impact the DNA which in turn leads to skin conditions, digestive problems, liver malfunction on one side and on the other extreme lead to mental retardation and skill development issues in children and of course cancer.

We have found a direct correlation between arsenic and gall bladder cancer in the arsenic hotspots in the state. We are at the moment preparing a paper on it. 

Is arsenic poisoning reversible?

If water is treated before consumption, if the nutrition of the people is taken care of with enough greens and antioxidants, it can be arrested.

We have seen an improvement in skin conditions, etc., in villages where the surface water has been treated. Of course, it is important to realise that this is possible as long as the arsenic poisoning has not led to cancer, in which case reversing it is difficult.

What is the solution? 

There is no complete solution. It is difficult to completely root out the problem of high arsenic. What can be done is to ensure safe drinking water to the population along with a nutritious diet. This could mitigate the severity of the impact.  But it is an acute problem. 

Can the arsenic be removed from the water sources?

We have to remove both iron and arsenic from the contaminated water. One has to remember that arsenic in the groundwater of Bihar is not due to factory pollutants or pesticides. It is a geogenic problem aggravated by anthropogenic activity (overexploitation of groundwater). (In UP, both factors are involved, we may add.)

Had we used the water sources responsibly, continued using surface water and not switched entirely to groundwater, things may not have been so bad.

Has there been any headway in convincing people to go back to dugwell water?

Wherever we can, we have advised people to clean up their wells and use that water. We have found no traces of arsenic in open wells and surface water. 

It is an uphill task. It is very difficult to convince people to go back to the laborious process of drawing water from a well when the alternative is water on demand from a handpump outside their homes.

When we tell them the well water is cleaner than the hand pump water, the elders in the village from the 60s and 70s, laugh at us. “When we used well water, you forced us to change to handpumps. Now you are lecturing us about going back to wells,” they ask.

Are there any awareness measures being taken? 

We are doing reverse tracing at the cancer hospital. We get about 25,000 cancer patients a year at our hospital. When it is established that a patient has cancer and traces of arsenic is found in his blood, hair and nails, we test water in their village to see if it has high arsenic content.

There are many reasons for cancer, and we are still in the process of collecting data on how many of them are directly linked to arsenic.

( for full interview: https://en.gaonconnection.com/bihar-arsenic-in-water-groundwater-health-risks-patna-cancer-mental-health-disease-himalayas-pollution-control-nutrition/)

The above discussion is on Socio-Political and Economic Aspects of arsenic problem…how it was related to hand pumps policy of 1970s .. It is similar to fluorosis studies. For more information on Fluorosis, see our earlier articles in CC including the one below:

Socio-Political and Economic Aspects Of Fluorosis (2016)

https://countercurrents.org/2017/04/socio-political-and-economic-aspects-of-fluorosis/

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See Part-1 ‘It is poison, not water, that comes out of the handpumps’ in UP here:              

https://countercurrents.org/2022/02/it-is-poison-not-water-that-comes-out-of-the-handpumps-in-up/

(FMRRC, Fluorosis Mitigation Research and Resource Centre, based in Hubli, Karnataka, is a small group with Dr. KS Sharma (1934-born Law Professor cum veteran Trade Union leader, ) as its Founder- Chairman, and Dr. M. Bapuji, Senior Scientist Ex-CSIR as its Scientific Advisor. It is not an NGO, but is part of a larger mass movement of workers (IRTUC) and rural poor (Krantikari Janandolana) of Karnataka. FMRRC believes drinking water is a fundamental right derived from right to life…there is a need to relentlessly SEAM (Sensitize, Educate, Agitate and Mobilize) on this issue.

For enquiries email to bapujim@gmail.com.)


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One Comment

  1. S. N. Murthy Ch says:

    It is really a pity that most of the discussions in the media over the present UP assembly elections hover around caste and communal calculations leaving aside the kind of burning problems of the people of the state explained in this informative article. Thanks to FMRRC and CC for publishing this at an appropriate time.