High level of arsenic found in Punjab groundwater
A group of Indian, Pakistani and American scientists has recommended an immediate blanket field testing of hand pumps across the divided region of Punjab after finding extensive arsenic contamination and high concentrations of nitrate and fluorides in the groundwater there.
“This would be the first step towards identifying the risks to the contaminants,” the experts from New Delhi-based Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), Pakistan’s Quaid-i-Azam University and Columbia University have said in a report based on their study of groundwater in Indian and Pakistani sides of divided Punjab for over two years.
The report added the solution could be as simple as identifying safe wells, facilitating their switching and sharing besides large-scale water treatment and pipe water delivery.
Long-term exposure to arsenic can cause cancer, skin lesions, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). It can also harm cognitive development and increase deaths among young adults.
Arsenic contamination in groundwater had so far been found to be particularly limited to West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and some surrounding areas in the Indo-Gangetic plains and Bangladesh’s Ganges-Brahmaputra basins.
The study, which is one of the first large-scale studies conducted in the Indus basin region, has now found high arsenic levels particularly in the floodplains of the Ravi river covering Tarn Taran, Amritsar, and Gurdaspur districts on the Indian side of Punjab.
About 30,000 handpumps were tested as part of the study, which was published this month in leading international peer-reviewed scientific journal Elsevier’s Science of the Total Environment. The study found as many as 25% of the 13,000 wells tested contained higher levels of arsenic on the Indian side of divided Punjab alone. It found nitrate levels were three to five times the WHO standards in most wells. Arsenic levels were recorded almost 20 to 50 times higher than the WHO limits of 10 parts per billion in many wells.
“Arsenic and fluoride contamination is from natural sources. But our suspicion is that the nitrate contamination is from agriculture and pesticides,” said TERI’s assistant professor Chander Kumar Singh, highlighting a key challenge in Punjab that is known as India’s food bowl.
Most of the samples used in the study were examined with water testing kits before further analysis at the University of Columbia.
In the report, the scientists have quoted the residents saying the people in the region suffer from diseases associated with water contamination like skin lesions and cancers. “We know that cancer incidence in Punjab is high but we have not linked our findings with the public health aspect. However, our impression, while speaking to locals, was that they were suffering health impacts associated with water contamination,” said Singh.
Exposure to high levels of nitrate is linked to methemoglobinemia, a blood disorder, gastric cancer, goiter, birth malformations etc.
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