Arsenic Scare Spreads to Ballia
The Telegraph
October 5, 2004

New Delhi: Laboratory studies sponsored by the Centre for Science and Environment have confirmed that arsenic contamination has reached Ballia in Uttar Pradesh, moving westwards from its traditional region of concentration in Bengal.

The CSE announced the findings at a public meeting attended by director Sunita Narain, Dipankar Chakraborti, director of the School of Environmental Studies, Jadavpur University, Binod Khaitan, professor, department of dermatology and venereology at AIIMS, and Paul Deverill, project officer, child environment, Unicef.

The studies, in which samples of hand-pump water, hair and nail of people living in villages were analysed in laboratories, found levels of arsenic higher than what is considered safe. Khaitan pointed out that arsenic was not only a carcinogen, but also hampered the healing of injuries.

While 80 to 250 per parts billion (ppb) concentration of arsenic has been found to be the tolerable limit by toxicologists, the CSE study has found up to 4,800 to 6,300 ppb of arsenic in the hair samples.

The Bureau of Indian Standards guideline for arsenic in drinking water is 10 ppb. The analysis of hand-pump water in Ballia district showed the levels at over 73 ppb.

The CSE director said there is a need for a special mission to deal with arsenic and fluoride poisoning in the country.

"There is a health pandemic, but our system is fractured. Those who look after health at the village level are not the ones who look at water. No one looks at quality. There is a health and quality of water link. For example, we have to link cleaning of arsenic to cleaning our ponds, tanks and rivers," Narain said.

Officially, the Centre accepts arsenic contamination only in eight districts of Bengal and Bhojpur district in Bihar.

Deverill said Unicef has found that Bengal is the most seriously affected state, but arsenic with more than 50 ppb concentration has also been found in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. In Bengal, Bihar and, lately, in Uttar Pradesh, a Unicef project has recommended 100 per cent screening of public water sources, private testing and marketing household filters.

Experts from Jadavpur University and Unicef have conducted extensive arsenic tests in the Gangetic plains and found high levels of contamination in many districts.

The available scientific literature suggests this is natural arsenic which has travelled from the Himalayas and has seeped into the soil of the plains. However, scientists are still unclear about how the arsenic, naturally found in the soil, is released in the groundwater.

Tracing the manner in which arsenic contamination has spread in the flood plains of South Asia from the 1970s to date covering Bangladesh, Nepal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Assam, Chakraborti, who has done exhaustive studies, said the problem was partly of nature while the green revolution was partly to blame.

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