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Arsenic Groundwater Contamination in Middle Ganga Plain, Bihar, India: a Possible Future Danger

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It is of the utmost importance to have access to clean drinking water, no matter how far one resides from developed society (Hall, Van Koppen & Van Houweling, 2014). In ‘Arsenic groundwater contamination in Middle Ganga Plain, Bihar, India: A future danger?’ – Environmental Health Perspectives by Chakraborti et al. (2003) an investigation was launched into the possible arsenic contamination of groundwater in the Ganga Plain: a populated, vast region located at the foothills of the Himalayas in Northern India (Misra, 2013). This action was taken after findings from similar studies carried out in West Bengal and Bangladesh suggested that pandemics of arsenic poisoning are possible through contaminated groundwater extraction (Rahman et al. , 2001).

The results confirmed hundreds of people had above WHO recommended levels of arsenic in their bodies. But how did this happen? The author made some notable inferences, yet none resulted with sound conclusions, mainly due to uncertainty formed from a lack of homogenous data to base on. Regardless, the overwhelming discovery of diagnosed cases in the Bihar region can only be seen as a resounding success and overall presented were some highly appealing arguments which support the theory that dug wells replaced by tube wells have subsequently led to unsafe drinking water.

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Summary of Methods and Results

An investigation conducted in 1983 first identified arsenic contamination of groundwater in the Lower Ganga Plain (Mazumder et al. , 1988), although, the issue was never discerned in the middle or upper provinces, likely because of a shortage of information escaping the numerous villages and limited scientific attention in the area (Zelner et al. , 2012). It was only when a local school teacher submitted a sample of water to the author’s laboratory that suspicions were raised.

The groundwater sample contained 814 µg/L of arsenic, 764 µg/L more than the recommended level for drinking water in Bangladesh and India; 10 µg/L is the World Health Organisation’s recommended limit. The community investigated in the Middle Ganga Plain was Semria Ojha Patti, a remote village of roughly 5000 inhabitants (Chakraborti et al. , 2003), of which 550 subjects volunteered for testing (390 adults, 160 children). Conventional or not, a loudspeaker was used to recruit willing residents. Photographs were taken to visually compare symptoms between case subjects and past episodes and, furthermore, only the urine, hair and nails of subjects were evaluated; results from each correlated significantly. Of the 5000 residents of the greater Semria Ojha Patti region (5 lesser villages included), 56. 8% used water with arsenic measured at > 50 µg/L and 19. 9% > 300 µg/L, unfortunately leaving only 23. 3% with safe water. The author importantly noted that subjects examined years before in Bangladesh only experienced skin lesions and other sever effects after drinking contaminated water 300 µg/L and over; 10. 9% of subjects in this study suffered this fate. Other reported or observed symptoms included distal paresthesias and distal hypesthesias, limb pains, absent tendon reflexes, muscle weakness, headaches, vertigo, sleep disorders, mental change and cranial nerve issues (Chakraborti et al. , 2003).

Additionally, the reproductive histories of 5 sample women exposed to contaminated groundwater ranging 463-1,025 µg/L was assessed and collectively they experienced higher than average cases of miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth and low birth weights. Interestingly, some villages were geologically free of arsenic. This was concluded by suggesting the Ganga Plain, home to 449 million people (Chakraborti et al. , 2003), might not be affected evenly.

Discussion & Conclusions

From the author’s perspective there was undoubtedly a great urgency to produce answers on the matter as village adults drank an estimated 4 L of water per day, and children 2 L/day. Elder residents also mentioned that there were no reported cases of the symptoms before tube wells replaced dug wells 20 years prior. There was also no formal consideration from governments or international aid agencies for the possibility that arsenic concentration could reach dangerous levels in groundwater on a widescale across the Indian subcontinent. It could be said that people in general were content on neglecting the issue until a repeat of the incident sustained years earlier further south took place. Thus, in pursuit of pinpointing the direct source of the arsenic contamination, investigators were faced with an almighty challenge. They were restricted in many ways to carry out methodical testing.

For example, they lacked true demographic representation as women, children who attended school, and men who worked outside of the villages were seldom tested and only those who were available and willing were assessed. The study was without a true control population and the gravity of exposure could only be compared with preliminary studies from West Bengal and Bangladesh (Rahman et al. , 2001). Mostly absent in the article were the reasons for why tube wells resulted in poorer groundwater quality, especially in higher arsenic. Briefly suggested theories were that arsenic had either been mobilised or microbial activity, resulting from oxygen entering water through wells, had been occurring. The chief proposed reason for the crisis was that arsenic rich sediment from the Himalayas, concentrating in the slower, meandering reaches of the river Ganga (Mazumder et al. , 1988), was supporting the groundwater which was at the same depth as the tube wells (20-55 m).

However, this theory was not determined to be the conclusive origin of the contamination. Hand-dug wells can be very deep, ranging between roughly 3-125 m (Soomro et al. , 2017) in most places, yet it seems strange is that no cases of arsenic poisoning were reported before the change to tube wells. More focus on this aspect may have eased the interpretation of the Bihar region’s past history regarding water quality. Overall this article was a meaningful read. The positive components of it far outweighed any shortcomings it may have had; most of which were a result of the difficult study environment that the investigators were subjected to. The article provided a logical flow with easily interpretable results followed by relevant comparisons with similar studies, e. g. West Bengal and Bangladesh.

The content, although unsettling to read, brought greater awareness on the many harmful effects of arsenic poisoning to this reader. Certainly this matter has caused pronounced suffering and a feeling of despair in the villagers inhabiting the Bihar region of northern India. It is my opinion that through this study and studies alike that groundwater contaminated areas will gain more attention in the coming decades as human endeavours like mining and incidents of improper disposal of chemicals are becoming more common by the day (Meszaros et al. , 2017).


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