Arsenic Poisoning in Ground Water: TERI University Symposium Suggests Tubewell Testing

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Symposium Suggests Awareness, Tubewell Testing and Geological Information to Mitigate Effects of Arsenic Pollution in Groundwater. International panel of experts hosted at TERI University deliberate on this critical healthcare issue

IndiaCSR News Network

NEW DELHI: TERI University, the leading institution dedicated to education for sustainable development, hosted the first ever ‘National Symposium on Geogenic Contamination of Groundwater: Impact and Mitigation Strategies’ with speakers highlighting arsenicosis, skin cancer, mental retardation in children as major public health issues.

A December 2014 report presented by the Lok Sabha Estimates Committee had highlighted that 86 districts in 10 states have arsenic contamination exceeding the permissible limit of 0.05mg/litre as set by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS).

In fact, the WHO’s global standards of permissible limit is 0.01mg/litre, which has been relaxed by BIS merely due to lack of alternate sources of water. The Committee had urged that the relaxed limit be done away with and WHO standards be accepted.

Geogenic contamination has natural causes and is not due to man-made pollution – and is as such a major concern for Governments. Groundwater drawn by millions of handpumps in South and South East Asia, poses serious health problems due to elevated concentration of arsenic, fluoride, selenium nitrate and other geogenic contaminants. Surveys in Bangladesh and India have shown that about one-third to half of households when informed that their handpump is high in geogenic contaminant seek a neighbor’s handpump that is low in concentration despite cultural barriers.

The main obstacle to well-switching and exposure reduction for millions of villagers is therefore lack of information: the vast majority of wells have never been tested. Field studies can demonstrate to local authorities that blanket testing is warranted and feasible using current technology.

Teri UniversityThe National Symposium aimed to bring forth expert viewpoints addressing the need of millions of rural inhabitants across India, and other parts of South Asia, who rely on shallow wells as their main source of drinking water.

There is growing evidence of a major impact on human health of prolonged exposure to geogenic contaminants from drinking handpump water. The Lok Sabha Estimates Committee report had highlighted that most of the arsenic affected population are economically backward and unable to afford medical treatment, and had sought to involve various government agencies and ministries in provision of free medical treatment and health insurance.

More than 100 distinguished researchers, scholars and practitioners and policy makers from around the world attended the Symposium, which also saw participation from the Ministries of Environment, Forests & Climate Change; Agriculture; Health & Family Welfare; and Science & Technology.

In a keynote address, Prof. John McArthur of University College London’s Arsenic Research Group brought out how little the causes and distribution of arsenic pollution is understood and why it matters that we should.  He said, “geological information as well as handpump platforms could provide important clue to finding Arsenic free groundwater”. The UCL Arsenic Research group has been one of the pioneers in Arsenic studies around the world.

The symposium was supported by USAID and Dept. of Science and Technology. Dr. C.K. Singh, Professor Dept of Water Studies at TERI University and Convener of the Symposium, said, “This is the first time such a conference was organized on this important issue providing a common stage for researchers, social scientists, economists, community and stakeholders to showcase the recent research and development and mitigations options and all looking at the issue of Arsenic from their academic lens”.

Dr. Singh, who leads a PEER Science funded study by National Science Foundation and USAID on targeting low arsenic and low fluoride aquifers in rural Punjab, also presented new findings on contamination of Punjab aquifers by Arsenic, Fluoride and Nitrates.

A roundtable brainstorming session with all the experts came up with an integrated approach to management of the arsenic pollution problem and compiled a policy suggestion paper that is being forwarded to the relevant ministries and departments, including MoEF&CC, Ministry of Water resources & River Development; Department of Agriculture Research & Education (DARE); Ministry of Health & Family Welfare; and Ministry of Earth Sciences.

The deliberations by Prof. JM Mc Arthur acknowledged that the geological understanding is necessary to tap arsenic-free safe water. It was also recommended that medical examination of people in Arsenic affected areas should be properly done, as many a time it is confused with symptoms of some other diseases.

Well-switching, while not a permanent solution, would provide some relief and a time-frame for development of sustainable technological solutions would be gained. The socio-behavioural impacts also were found to be important as studies indicate that people are willing to pay provided better services are offered.

It was also observed that there is lack of awareness and there should be serious efforts put in place to raise the awareness levels.

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