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Arsenic alarm in villages of Bihar and Jharkhand

September 14, 2010 16:52 IST

Thousands of people living in over hundreds of villages in different district of Bihar and Sahebganj district of Jharkhand state in India are facing serious threat to their health due to alarmingly high quantity of arsenic present in the ground water.

Bihar is facing one of the gravest natural disasters in the form of arsenic contamination of ground water. In the first detailed study of ground water quality, the department of environment and water management, A N College, Patna, has already submitted interim reports to state public health engineering department and UNICEF about the alarming findings on arsenic poisoning cases in the districts of Patna, Bhojpur, Vaishali and Bhagalpur. The study was conducted from April 2004 to May 2006, the study area being confined to 10 lilometre-wide belt along the Ganga river.

According to Dr Ashok Ghosh, principal investigator of Project Arsenic, these findings are just the tip of the iceberg, as more contaminated aquifers are waiting to be detected in the remaining parts of the state. The water quality testing was done initially by field test kits and then confirmed by Atomic Absorption Spectrophotometer or UV Spectrophotometric tests. Epidemiological studies indicate that drinking water having more than permissible arsenic levels of 10 ppb (parts per billion) increases the mortality rates as arsenic is a bio-accumulative toxin.

Persons suffering from arsenicosis have not yet responded to known treatment procedures. The high the intake of arsenic, along with under nourishment and lack of medical help have worsened the lives of the population in the arsenic affected rural areas. Arsenic can also contaminate standing food crops if it is present in the soil and soil water. As the Bihar plains are highly fertile and its crops are marketed to many distant places, apart from being locally consumed, it becomes imperative to test the levels of arsenic in the food chain too. What is worrisome is that arsenic contaminated ground water tables have abrupt occurrences both over time and space. This explains why a public hand pump in village Ramnager in Maner tested 30 ppb in the post monsoon period and more than 60 ppb in May. Also arsenic manifestation exists at different levels in different areas. In north-west Maner, arsenic contaminated hand pumps have a shallow depth of between 60 to 80 feet in the diara (land along the river belt) belt.

In Bhojpur, the depth of contaminated aquifers goes down to 150 feet away from new diara land, while in Vaishali, arsenic is found in the shallow and middle aquifers at an average distance of five km away from the river bank. Regular monitoring of drinking water from hand pumps is immediately required as a part of the mitigation strategy. Patna, the first district to be covered, revealed pockets of high arsenic contamination, above the acceptable limit of 10 ppb in 171 villages in Maner, Danapur, Sampatchak, Barh, Bakhtiarpur, Fatuha, Khusrupur, Phulwari, Mokama, Pandarak and Patna City.

1060 village hand pumps were arsenic contaminated. The highest AAS reading of arsenic level in government hand pump water is 724 ppb in village Naikatola in Maner, 450 ppb. in Kasimchak village in Danapur, 553 ppb in Ghiaspur Mahazi and 538 ppb in Kala Diara, Bakhtiarpur,, and 484 ppb in Malahi Banda village in Barh.

Sampatchak Block has low contamination levels of below 50 ppb over a larger area in most of the villages. In Bhojpur, the highest AAS test readings are 1861 ppb and 1064 ppb in Pandey tola, Barhara block, a situation far more serious than the one represented by the much-touted village Ojhapatti of Shahpur block.

Out of the 6,292 hand pumps tested, 47.7 percent were arsenic contaminated. In Barhara, 62.84 percent, in Udwantnagar 59.39 percent, in Shahpur 40.41 percent, in Behea 37.17 percent, in Koilwar, 29.20 percent, and in Ara 25.88 percent of block level hand pumps were arsenic contaminated. In Vaishali, all the blocks covered within 10 km along the Ganga banks, have low level arsenic contamination at present.

Detailed work was carried out by Dr Ghosh in the arsenic affected areas of Bihar. He found that out of 27,061 hand pumps, 7,218 pumps tested had arsenic contaminated water greater than 10 ppb (26.67 percent). Highest arsenic value recorded was 1861 ppb. Study also revealed that 87 percent of the trivalent arsenic was found in the groundwater of Bihar.

In Bhagalpur district most affected areas are Kahalgaon, Pirpainti, Sabaur and Sultanganj. A detailed study has been presented on groundwater metal contents of Sahebgunj district in Jharkhand, with special reference to arsenic. Both tubewell and well waters have been studied separately with greater emphasis on tubewell waters. Ground waters of all the nine blocks of Sahebgunj district have been surveyed for iron, manganese, calcium, magnesium, copper and zinc in addition to arsenic. Ground waters of three blocks of Sahebgunj, namely, Sahebgunj, Rajmahal and Udhawa have been found to be alarmingly contaminated with arsenic present at or above 10 ppb.

Rivers flowing through the coal fields of Jharkhand have been reported to carry arsenic responsible for arsenic poisoning in downstream areas of West Bengal. The coal fields of Bachara and Piprawar areas of Jharkhand have contaminated the waters of the Damodar and its tributary, the Safi. According to the author, arsenic contamination arises mainly due to the dumping of waste from the coal mines along the river bed. The coal of the area mentioned contains sufficient amount of arsenic.

The source of the problem is geological in origin, which has been aggravated due to excessive withdrawal of groundwater for paddy cultivation.

The real truth is that people of the area are ignorant about this toxicity. Few people know about this but due to lack of pure source of water they are helpless and are forced to depend on the contaminated water. 

Dr Nitish Priyadarshi