At least 18 babies in several hamlets of Bihar’s Bhojpur district have been born blind in the past three months because their families consume groundwater containing alarming levels of arsenic, doctors have told Hindustan Times.
Bihar’s Health Minister Nand Kishore Yadav on Wednesday confirmed the cases of blindness in newborns in arsenic-affected blocks of the district but said the cause of blindness was not known.
Though more than 16 districts of Bihar have reported arsenic contamination of groundwater sources, Bhojpur emerged on top, with 1,861 parts per billion (ppb) against the World Health Organization’s limit of 50 ppb.
This is the first time that blindness at birth has been attributed to arsenic contamination, though doctors say
that people using groundwater in contaminated areas suffer from cancer of the intestines, liver, kidneys and bladder and that bone deformity, gangrene and skin disorders are common.
Arsenic is an odourless and tasteless semi-metal element which occurs naturally in the environment.
Sometimes it also occurs as a byproduct of agriculture and industry due to heavy use of pesticides and insecticides or untreated effluent flows into water bodies.
Dr S.K. Kedia, an eye specialist in Ara, who first examined these cases, said visual disability was found in both male and female children streaming in for examination from interior villages of the district.
“The villages of Bhaluipur, Barahra, Bihia, Shahpur and Sandesh seem to be the most affected,” Dr Kedia said.
“Ninety per cent of the newborns affected were from poor families. Most such families had a history of using community hand pumps for water,” he added.
Dr Kedia had no doubt “the cases are due to arsenic contamination, though it may need several micro-tests to firmly establish the case”.
Bhojpur Civil Surgeon Dr K.K. Labh admitted having received reports of 27 such cases but expressed doubts about blindness being caused by arsenic contamination of groundwater alone.
“The impact of electromagnetic waves from cell-phone towers, presence of lead in drinking water sources, non-judicious medication by expecting mothers and environmental pollution could also lead to blindness,” he said.