Bone deformities due to arsenic poisoning are rampant among youth in Bengal, the Indian army has found. Less than 100 youths among the 2,000 who turned up for an army recruitment drive in February, passed the physical test.
"We had 200 vacancies, but we could not even fill even 50% of the posts," said group captain TK Singha, chief public relations officer, ministry of defence. "Most of the students failed the basic medical test because of defects in bone structure," said an officer. "This was not visible by the naked eye, nor did it affect normal life."
But that was because of the young age of the candidates (between 17 and 23 years), he said. The problems will become more pronounced with age and may end in deformities.
"We found out most of the candidates came from arsenic affected regions of Bengal, and drink water from hand pumps," he said. Hand pumps — used rampantly in the state — are the most widespread source of arsenic poisoning.
The recruitment was not for fighting ranks but for technical positions — aviation, ammunition and nursing.
“We need some basic medical fitness for technical staff too, but the candidates could not even match those criteria,” said another officer who was present at the recruitment camp.
“Arsenic can affect any organ, including bones, causing deformity, brittleness and degeneration,” said Sudarshan Niyogi, professor of chemical engineering at IIT-Kharagpur and an expert in the field.
Arsenic contamination in Bengal was detected more than 30 years ago, said Niyogi.
Since the early eighties, arsenic related skin diseases were detected in Malda, Murshidabad, Nadia, North-24-Parganas, South-24-Parganas, Burdwan, Howrah, Hooghly and Kolkata by Kolkata's School of Tropical Medicine and the All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health.
Following a 20-year study, the School of Environmental Studies of Jadavpur University, categorised those districts as severely affected areas.