ARSENIC - THE HUSHED-UP TRUTH





Dear Friend,

Every year, at the time of New Year, I send you some information about the recent state of the arsenic problem in West Bengal-India and Bangladesh (in Bangladesh we are working jointly with Dhaka Community Hospital), where we are working for the last 13 and 6 years respectively. This time, too, I am sending you information to remind you that in some parts of this beautiful earth, thousands are suffering, dying, and millions are drinking arsenic-contaminated water above 50 ug/l and even in this 21st century we are helpless in the face of this problem.

My appeal to scientists, medical people, aid agencies, environmentalists, social workers, peoples in management, planners and others is to come forward to combat the situation.

Even after working for the last 13 years in West Bengal-India, and 6 years in Bangladesh with about 40 people in our group, I have no hesitation in saying that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg, and the more we survey, the more we run into affected areas and people suffering from arsenicosis. Please also note that with time more countries being added to the list of those whose groundwater has been affected by arsenic contamination: the latest being VIETNAM.

In India alone 65 million people are suffering from fluorosis; more than 30 million people from West Bengal-India and Bangladesh are drinking arsenic-contaminated water above 50 ug/l; hundreds of thousands are suffering from arsenicosis. About 50 years back, we decided to extract groundwater and convinced villagers that groundwater would bring good heath and green revolution. Villagers were, at first, reluctant to use groundwater, saying that it was 'Devil's water'.

We are presently on our march to extract more and more groundwater. During the last decade, groundwater extraction has increased several folds over the previous decade. Even during summer we extract groundwater through deep tube-wells for agricultural irrigation. Although in Bangladesh and West Bengal-India, we have huge amounts of surface water, plenty of rainfall, flooded river basins, and thousands of Ox Bow lakes but we are not properly managing and using these resources. Instead, we are withdrawing the easily-available underground water, and that also without proper management. Shouldn't we take fluoride and arsenic in groundwater as nature's preliminary warnings about more dangerous toxins yet to come?

ARSENIC - THE HUSHED-UP TRUTH

"Deeper Aquifers of Bangladesh- A Review Meeting", was organized in Bangladesh during 20-22, August, 2000 by the Department of Public Health Engineering (DPHE), Bangladesh in collaboration with UNICEF and World Bank.

In that meeting while describing groundwater arsenic contamination in West Bengal - India a high ranking official of government of West Bengal and dealing with arsenic problem of W. Bengal said, ".... in 1994 there were about, 1100 identified cases of arsenicosis, the acute stage of arsenic poisoning, in areas of West Bengal. The number has since come down to 450. So far we have not found arsenic beyond the permissible level in any tube-well sunk to deeper aquifer in the affected areas. Even if there are traces, those are within the permissible level of 0.05 mg/l. If it exceeds the limit at any place we have the technology to treat the water by using simple method. Arsenic free drinking water is now supplied to the door steps of the people in the affected areas through pipe line network".

[Reference:

  1. Bangladesh Observer - a daily news paper, published on 9th September 2000
  2. Fact sheet 13 on Arsenic, September 2000, Disaster Forum, Dhaka, Bangladesh, Email: df@bangla.net]
A fact findings discussion on the two issues as reported by a high ranking official of government of West Bengal and dealing with arsenic problem of West Bengal in Dhaka conference, August 20-22, 2000.

Issue-I : ".......in 1994 there were about, 1100 identified cases of arsenicosis, the acute stage of arsenic poisoning, in areas of West Bengal. The number has since come down to 450"

Issue-II: "We started installing tube-wells at deeper aquifers in many affected areas since 1994. Water drawn from such deeper aquifers in not only the safest drinking water, but the arsenic affected people have also shown signs of remedy after they started drinking such water" (Reference 1&2 as above).

Discussion on Issue -I

Murshidabad District, West Bengal - India, One Of The Worse Arsenic Affected Area In World Scenario" (Our Study Report From April 1995 To December 2000)

Area of Murshidabad district  5326 sq. km
Population of Murshidabad 4740149
Number of Blocks in Murshidabad 26
Number of Gram Panchayet (GP) in Murshidabad 225
Number of villages in Murshidabad 2219 

[Each district has some blocks, each block has some gram panchayet (GP); each GP has some villages]

First phase of our study

1st Phase of our preliminary survey in Murshidabad district (from 1995 April to December 2000)

Figure-1 shows Murshidabad district and Table-1 shows our preliminary survey report.

Table-1 Preliminary survey report of Murshidabad district

Blocks surveyed (Total blocks in Murshidabad 26) 16
Total days spent for survey in 16 out of 26 blocks 100 (approx.)
Total water samples analyzed for 16 blocks (upto December 2000). Analyzed by FI-HG-AAS and determination limit with 95% confidence limit is 3 ug/l. We had also analyzed borehole sediments, urine, hair, nails, skin-scales from the affected villages. 14600
% of samples having arsenic above 10 ug/l 66.9%
% of samples having arsenic above 50 ug/l 34.3%
Total villages where ground water arsenic is above 50 ug/l 594
Block surveyed for arsenic patient  14
No. of blocks where arsenic patient found 14
Number of villages where patients with arsenic skin lesions identified so far (very preliminary survey & number of villages will increase) 150
Number of patients identified (very preliminary survey) while working in arsenic affected villages & the number will increase when detailed survey will be done. 20000 (approx.)

We realized during our First Phase survey that to cover all 26 blocks of Murshidabad district with our working group (at present 26 people are in our working group that includes geologist, analytical chemist, bio-chemist, environmentalist, pathologist, dermatologist, neurologist, general physician, pediatric, economist and field workers), we need at least 25 x 26 working days. Since we can manage to work in field 10 days a month (with normally 10-12 people from our group are available in each field visit) no. of years required for surveying 26 blocks will be about 5 (if we work only in Murshidabad district). So we had decided to cover one block in details to know the magnitude of the calamity.

Second Phase

An approach to study one block in details

From our first phase experience we realised that we will not be able to cover whole Murshidabad district before at least five years and so we decided to study one block in details and we had taken Jalangi block. Location of Jalangi block is shown in Figure-1 in Murshidabad district. During July 2000 (7 days) and December 2000 (9 days) we made a systematic study in Jalangi block. Figure-2 shows the distribution of arsenic in all 10 Gram Panchayet of Jalangi. We also collected hair, nail, urine and skin scales from the villagers.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Discussion about arsenic contamination and sufferings of people in Jalangi block

There are 10 GPs in Jalangi block. We covered all ten GPs of Jalangi block and Figure-2 shows all these 10 GPs and groundwater arsenic contamination.

From our survey report approx. 3900 tubewells are in Jalangi block and we had analysed 1890 tubewells.

The water analysis report shows that out of 1890 samples there are 328 (17.4%) sample (%) above 300 ug/l and from our village experience we usually expect arsenical skin lesions to those drinking 300 ug/l and above. Further 37(2%) samples are above 1000 ug/l.

During our last 13 years survey in West Bengal and 6 years in Bangladesh we have not found a single block where 37 tube-wells water people drinking are over 1000 ug/l. This may be exception in world arsenic scenario.

Arsenicosis patients in Jalangi block

Out of the 10 GPs Jallangi block we have so far identified patients from 7 GPs. We had anlysed water samples from all GPs but could not survey three GPs for arsenic patient. These 3 GPs are Jalangi, Sohebnagar Chuapara. From 40 villages of the 7 GPs we had identified 1609 patients with arsenical skin lesions. Table-2 shows findings of 40 villages where we have identified arsenic patients.

Table-2 Findings of 40 villages from Jalangi block where we have identified arsenic patients [9 days camp (5-8 December 2000 & 25-29December, 2000)].

Total population of 40 villages 67140
Registered patients with arsenic skin lesions, name, address classification of skin lesions of patient and other complications were restricted 1609
No. of actual patients expected (according to the village Head/GP member and knowing the number of patients who could not come to our camp from each affected family). According to village head we were examining a small percent of total patients and the reason normally at the time we are in the village for survey adults are in field; school, college going boys and girls are not in village; Most of the young girl and young married women do not come to camp] 9315
No. of people died at young age with arsenical skin lesions (between age 15 and 45) information received from arsenic affected families 245
People died of cancer (lung, bladder, liver etc.) who had arsenical skin lesions (information received from affected families Name, Age of patients noted). 30
Suspected Bowens (Registered patient) 45
Non healing ulcer (Registered patient and amputated from cancer/ gangreen) (Registered patients) 13

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Photograph: 1-5 show some of suspected Bowen's. Photograph: 6-10 shows non healing ulcer and amputation (no biopsy done). All these patients have severe arsenical skin lesions.
 
 


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Table-3 shows a family where all 9 adults have severe arsenical skin lesions and suspected Bowen.

Name
Sex & Age
Melanosis
Keratosis
Suspected 
Palm
Trunk
Leu
WB
Palm
Sole
Dorsal
S
D
S
D
S
D
S
D
Rahada Bibi F/25
-
+
++
+
+
++
+
+
+
+
+
Bowens
Hasina Bibi F/35
-
-
+
+
+
+
++
+
+
+
-
Bowens
Fazle Rabbi Malitha M/45
-
-
+++
++
++
++
+
+
+
+
-
Bowens
Faizuddin Malitha M/70
-
-
++
+
++
+
+
+
+
+
-
Bowens
Shahidul Islam M/22
-
-
++
+
+
+
+
+
+
+
-
Bowens
Hafijul Islam M/19
-
-
++
+
+
+
+
+
+
+
-
Bowens
Mafijul Islam M/15
+
+
+++
++
+
++
+
+
+
+
-
Bowens
Sarajan Bibi F/60
+
+
++
++
+
++
+
+
+
+
-
Bowens
Hasena Bewa F/30
-
-
++
++
+
+
+
+
+
+
-
Bowens

S = Spotted, D = Diffuse, Leu = Leuco, WB = Whole Body; + Mild, ++ Moderate, +++ Severe

Even after working for 17 days we realized we could not cover Jalangi block as we expected. So we have taken one GP Sararpara of Jalangi to study in microlevel to know the magnitude.

Third Phase: Micro level survey of Sagar Para Gram Panchayet of Jalangi block (6 days camp - during December 2000).

From our Jalangi block experience we realised that to cover Jalangi block in micro level we need months. So to get better understanding of the magnitude of the calamity we took one gram panchayet Sagarpara out of 10 GPs of Jalangi block (see the location in Figure-2) and studied in micro-level.

Figure-3 shows the details. Table-4 show the detail arsenic information of Sagarpara Gram Panchayet. It appears from Figure-3 and Table-4 that Sagarpara is a seriously affected GP.

Table-4: Detailed arsenic information of Sagarpara GP

Total area of Sagarpara 20 sq. km (official)
Total population of Sagarpara 19614 (1991 census)
No. of villages (including sub villages we found) 21
Total population of 21 villages (according to our counting) 26270
Total hand tubewells in Sagarpara (according to our survey including those, not in working condition) 650 (approx.)
Total tubewells water we had analysed 565
No. of tubewells more than 10 ug/l 86.2%
No. of tubewells more than 50 ug/l  58.8%
% of people having arsenic in urine (arsenic metabolites) above 40 ug/l (n=75) 80
% of people having arsenic in urine above 100 ug/l (n=75) 45
No. of villages where we have found arsenic above 50 ug/l 21
No. of villages where we have found arsenic patient 21
Registered arsenic patient from Sagarpara (see Table-2) 679
Patients we expect from Sagarpara (reason as mentioned in Table-2) 3490

* From urine analysis it appears good percentage of people are drinking arsenic contaminated water.
 
 
 
 


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Photograph-11 shows Ramprosad Sarkar (M/10) and Nayantara Kapasia(F/10) drinking water from the hand tube-wells before we surveyed this area having arsenic 2040 and 2000 ug/l respectively . Usually children below 11 years do not show skin lesions but high arsenic in drinking water makes exception. Skin lesions of these two victims shown below. These two victims slowly became black and then skin lesions cause the patient irritated.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Name
Sex & Age
Melanosis
Keratosis
Palm
Trunk
Leu
WB
Palm
Sole
Dorsal
S
D
S
D
S
D
S
D
Ramprosad Sarkar
M,10
-
++
++
++
-
++
+
+
+
+
-
Nayantara Kapasia
F,10
-
++
++
++
-
++
++
++
++
++
-

S = Spotted, D = Diffuse, Leu = Leuco, WB = Whole Body; + Mild, ++ Moderate, +++ Severe

Finally from our preliminary survey (16 out of 26 blocks of Murshidabad district to some extent; detailed survey in one block Jalangi; microlevel sruvey of Sagarpra Gram Panchayet of Jalangi block) we predict for the district Murshidabad.

Approximate total number of hand tubewells in 16 blocks we surveyed 61536
Approximate total number of hand tubewells in Murshidabad (by extrapolation of 16 blocks data) 117500
Population exposed to arsenic contaminated water above 50 ug/l in 16 blocks 844273

(approx.)

Number of people having arsenic skin lesions in those 16 blocks (preliminary idenfication made while surveying the villagers) 20000 (approx.)
Patient registerd from only Jalangi block 1609
Patient registered from Sagarpara GP Jalangi block 679
Patient registered from Katlamari GP-I Raninagar Block-II 600

* From microlevel study of Sagarpara it appears a good percentage of people drinking contaminated water.

Photograph-12 is of Shiuli Debnath (F/25) and her daughter. Shiuli has arsenical skin lesions. They live in the village Chakchitan-Ghoshpara of Sagarpara GP. Total population of the village is about 1500 and all are drinking groundwater from 37 hand tubewells. None of hand tubewells have arsenic below 10 ug/l; 3 tubewells are between 21-27 ug/l and rest are above 50 ug/l (highest concentration 1489 ug/l and 62% of the tubewells have arsenic above 300 ug/l). Villagers are not aware also about the arsenic concentration of these tubewells. From this village we had registered 141 people with arsenic skin lesions and most of them suffering seriously. In this village there is water treatment plant but due to poor maintenance , blue-green algae and visible water born insects grew in the water (we have photographic evidence ) and the villagers are not drinking that water.

Shall we say, "villagers in arsenic affected districts of West Bengal are drinking arsenic contamination free water"?

Issue-II Are deep tubewells arsenic contamination free?

Recently (12 January 2001) we informed to the Secretary, Public Health Engineering Department, Government of West Bengal our study on deep tubewells. A summary shown below:

So far we had analysed 2146 tubewells (100 m to 450 m) from 6 out of 9 arsenic affected districts of West Bengal and have found arsenic in 22.3% of samples above 10 ug/l and 9.9% of samples have above 50 ug/l.

We had also analyzed almost all hand tubewells [100 m to 197 m (maximum available depth)] from the block Deganga of North 24 Parganas, West Bengal-India. The result shows 34.7% of the samples have arsenic above 10 ug/l and 13.9% samples above 50 ug/l. The detailed result of Degaga block is given below:


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Arsenic Status in deep tube-well of Deganga Block, North 24 parganas, West Bengal-India

Survey report from 15.01.2000 to 18.11.2000

  1. Total No. of Gram Panchayet (G.P.) =13
  2. No. of surveyed Gram Panchayet (G.P.) =13
  3. Total No. of villages = 181
  4. No. of villages surveyed = 99 (deep tubewells are not available in all villages)
  5. Tubewells with maximum depth found in 99 villages in 196.96 m
  6. Total No. of tube-wells (depth >=100 m) analyzed = 374
(Each sample analyzed twice, we have identification for each tubewell) 

Arsenic concentration distribution at a glance

(for 374 tubewells >=100 m)

No. of samples <5 m g/l No. of samples >=5 m g/l No. of samples >= 10 m g/l No. of samples >= 50 m g/l
216 (57.75%) 158 (42.25%) 130 (34.76%) 52 (13.9%)
6-9 m g/l
10-49 m g/l
50-99 m g/l
100-149 m g/l
150-200 m g/l
19 (5.08%)
78 (20.85%)
38 (10.16%)
9 (2.4%)
5 (1.33%)
Maximum depth where arsenic found
>=5 m g/l
>=10 m g/l
>= 50m g/l
196.96 m
181.81 m
181.81 m

Distribution of concentration of arsenic with depth at a glance

As conc. in m g/l
Depth in meter
>=100 (total)
>=100- <125
>=125- <150
>=150- <175
>=175-<197
< 5
216 (57.75%)
11 

(2.94%)

101 (27.05%)
99 

(26.4%)

5 (1.33%)
>=5
158 (42.25%)
10 

(2.67%)

51 

(13.6%)

90 (24.06%)
7 (1.87%)
6-9
19 

(5.08%)

(0.53%)

(1.33%)

12 

(3.20%)

0
10-49
78

(20.85%)

(1.06%)

24 

(6.4%)

45 (12.03%)
5 (1.33%)
50-99
38 

(10.16%)

(0.26%)

17 

(4.5%)

20 

(5.34%)

0
100-149

(2.40%)

(0.26%)

(0.5%)

(1.33%)

1 (0.26%)

[depth 181.88 m]

150-200
5

(1.33%)

(0.26%)

0

(0.80%)

1 (0.26%)

[depth 181.88 m]


 
 
 

Conclusion

To combat the arsenic menace we must stop suppressing the truth and immediately begin a detailed survey in the nine arsenic-affected districts of West Bengal to know the magnitude of groundwater contamination and to find out how many people are clinically and sub-clinically affected. In many villages of West Bengal people are still drinking arsenic-contaminated water and are not aware that their skin lesions are due to arsenic poisoning. Children are more susceptible to arsenic toxicity. We must take immediate steps to prevent the future generation from becoming crippled in West Bengal's (in India) nine arsenic-affected districts.

President Bill Clinton announced on 17th January 2001 the arsenic standard in drinking water of USA is 10 ug/l which he said, "will provide additional public health protection for 13 million Americans including protections from cancer, cardiovascular disease and other health problems". Still in West Bengal-India and Bangladesh we have arsenic in drinking water standard 50 ug/l. People of West Bengal-India and Bangladesh in average drink 4 liters of water per day, much higher than those having arsenic standard in drinking water 10 ug/l or less.
 
 

Research Group of SCHOOL OF ENVIRONMENTAL STUDIES, JADAVPUR UNIVERSITY, Calcutta - 700032, India (Tel: 91 33 4735233, Fax: 91 33 4734266, Email: dcsoesju@vsnl.com)

Mohammad Mahmudur Rahman (Analytical Chemist), Uttam Kumar Chowdhury (Bio-Chemist), Kunal Paul (Analytical Chemist), Dilip Lodh (Computer Expert and Microbiologist), Bhajan Kumar Biswas (Soil Chemist), Gautam Kumar Basu (Geologist), Chitta Ranjan Chandra (Analytical Chemist), Anil Chakraborti (Analytical Chemist), K.C. Saha (Dermatologist), S.C. Mukherjee (Neurologist), Imrul Kaies* (Medical Officer), Ajoy Kishore Barua* (Medical Officer), Debashish Maity (Field Attendant), Abhoy Bhattacharya (Field Attendant), Ashoke Ari (Field Attendant), Shankar Dey (Group Leader of Field Attendant), Piyush (Field Attendant), Bijan (Field Attendant), Jahangir (Field Attendant), Shibu (Field Attendant), M.C. Moulik (Economist), Govinda Tapader (Technical Assistant), Tapas Biswas (Technical Assistant), Samir Biswas (Technical Assistant), Narayan Bhattacharya (Social Scientist), Kalipada Biswas (Field Attendant), Ashoke Das (Technical Assistant) and Dipankar Chakraborti (Group Leader). [*from Bangladesh]



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