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1 Million Dead in 25 Years: Arsenic Contamination is Increasing Cancer Risks Across 200 Indian Cities

In a file photo from 2004, a woman from West Bengal shows her wrinkled hands, a condition caused by drinking arsenic-contaminated water. (Reuters)

In a file photo from 2004, a woman from West Bengal shows her wrinkled hands, a condition caused by drinking arsenic-contaminated water. (Reuters)

Studies suggest that early 10 million people in India have been exposed to groundwater contaminated with arsenic.

Seventy-year-old Priya Brath Sharma from Bihar’s Munger district, who has been bedridden for many years, is one among a million cases of arsenic poisoning reported in India. “I have stopped walking for many years as the lower body doesn’t move. I also went to AIIMS for treatment some years back, they said that it was Arsenic-related disease,” he said.

Referred to as the largest poisoning of people in the history, arsenic contamination has become one of the major concerns for the people living in North India. Studies suggest that nearly 10 million people in India have been exposed to groundwater contaminated with the cancer causing mineral and at least one million people have shown clinical manifestations. Arsenic is found naturally in the groundwater in many South Asian countries like India, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Sharma, who lives near the Ganges, said doctors advised him not to drink water from the well or hand pump. “There are more than 100 people in my village, Khaira Basti, who are suffering from cancer and other ailments because of the contaminated water. Others have spots and pigments on the skin,” Sharma said.

A study by Dr Ashok Ghosh, chairman of the Bihar State Pollution Control Board and head of Research at Mahavir Cancer Institute and Research Center in Patna suggests that “out of 28 states in India, reports of Arsenic contamination have emerged from 17 states.”

Arsenic contamination was first reported in Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh in the country. Later it was identified in the lower Ganga plain of West Bengal, Bangladesh, lower parts of Nepal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Assam.

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“Currently around 200 districts in the northern part of the country in the Gangetic plain is at risk of drinking water contaminated by arsenic in India,” the coordinator at the Inner Voice Foundation, a civil society group, that has worked on the issue said. The organization said that around 10 lakh people have died in the last 25 years because of diseases caused by exposure to arsenic.

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare had stated in a report in 2019 that as of April 2018, 16,278 habitations spread across nine districts in West Bengal, 18 in Assam, 11 in Bihar, 17 in UP, 17 in Punjab, 3 in Jharkhand and 2 in Karnataka were affected by arsenic.

In Bihar, high levels of arsenic in groundwater and associated health-related problems were first discovered in Semaria Ojhapatti village of Bhojpur district in 2002. Dr Ghosh said that today, arsenic contamination is found across 18 districts in Bihar threatening more than 10 million people in the state.

Ghosh’s study showed that the worst affected districts in Bihar include Bhojpur, Bhagalpur, Buxar, Patna, Vaishali, Khagaria and Samastipur. The study showed that 22 out of 38 districts in the state had arsenic above permissible limits (10 ppb) according to standards set by the World Health Organisation.

Intake through food

Recent studies suggest that groundwater contamination isn’t the only source of exposure for the Indian population. In many cases, the contamination is often linked to food intake, putting a larger population at risk.

“We found in our study exposure determined by food, based on intake of rice, wheat and potato was almost equal to that from drinking water. The highest contributor among the food was cooked rice”, says Ashok Ghosh.

His study suggests that arsenic exposure from food exceeds that from drinking water in endemic areas of Bihar.

Cancer Cases Surge

Drinking water consumption laced with arsenic causes cancer of stomach, kidney failure, heart disease, cardiovascular problems, lung cancer, neurological disorders, respiratory disorders, diabetes and stillbirths.

Rice has been detected with very high arsenic content which increases disease burden. Gosh said that the number of gallbladder cancer patients from arsenic hotspots was very high. His study showed links to other types of cancers as well, like breast cancer, liver cancer, gallbladder cancer, thyroid cancer, colorectal cancer cases.

Another study on the contamination also indicated that prevalence of prostate cancer was linked to the arsenic hotspot regions in Gangetic-zone of Bihar.

The number of cancer patients has significantly increased in the Brachytherapy Department of the Mahavir Cancer Sansthan. According to hospital statistics it increased to 631 in 2014 from 508 in 2009. It was further lower in 2004 with just 345 cases.

The patents enrolled for the radiotherapy department also increased considerably. It rose to 2,805 in 2014 from 1,939 in 2009. There were 1423 patients in 2004.

The Public Health Engineering Department (PHED) of the Bihar government looks after mitigation efforts and providing safe portable water to the affected districts. According to a PTI report, in 2018, the department acknowledged that more than 5,000 wards in the state receive arsenic-contaminated water and said that work was underway to provide safe supply to people by the end of 2020.

PHED Minister Vinod Narayan Jha had then said “In the first phase in the current fiscal 2018-19, the government will ensure arsenic-free safe drinking water in 2556 wards. In the remaining wards, work will be carried out in the next fiscal.”

“The state government is committed to provide water supply free of arsenic, fluoride and iron to the people and for that funds will never be a problem. We will make arrangements to provide piped drinking water from the surface of Ganga instead of sourcing it from the ground,” he had said.

News18 reached out to the PHED to find if these mitigation goals had been met, but couldn’t elicit a response from the department.

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first published:January 10, 2021, 07:56 IST