Arsenic Poisoning In Drinking Water: Huge Public-Health Problem – OpEd


Arsenic is a potent carcinogen and is known to cause cancer of the skin, lung, kidney, bladder and liver. Arsenic (As) poisoning from drinking water has been called the worst natural disaster in the history of mankind. Naturally occurring arsenic in private wells threatens people in many US states and parts of Canada, according to a package of a dozen scientific papers to be published next week.

The studies, focused mainly on New England, but applicable elsewhere, say private wells present continuing risks due to almost nonexistent regulation in most states, homeowner inaction and inadequate mitigation measures. The reports also shed new light on the geologic mechanisms behind the contamination. The studies come amid new evidence that even low doses of arsenic may reduce IQ in children, in addition to well documented risks of heart disease, cancer and reduced lung function. The reports comprise a special section in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

According to the World Health Organization drinking arsenic-rich water over a long period results in various health hazards, including skin problems, skin cancer, cancer of the bladder, kidney and lung, besides other diseases. Arsenic is the biggest public-health problem for water in the United States—it’s the most toxic thing we drink — yet for some reason, we pay far less attention to it than we do to lesser problems. Much long-term work on arsenic in the United States and Southeast Asia has been done via an extensive program at Lamont-Doherty and Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. Many rocks and sediments have inert, harmless traces of arsenic locked into them. But in recent years geologists have observed that some geologic formations can become enriched in arsenic, and certain chemical conditions may cause rocks to react with groundwater and liberate the element into aquifers. Since the 1990s, the problem has been identified in some 70 countries; it is worst in Southeast Asia, where as many as 100 million people are exposed.

Arsenic (As) is known to be a very toxic element and a carcinogen to human. Even a trace amount of arsenic can be harmful to human health. The World Health Organizations (WHOs) current provisional guideline for arsenic in drinking water is 10 ppb. In India, states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhnad, West Bengal, Assam, Manipur, mainly in Ganga-Meghna-Brahmaputra (GMB) plain covering an area of about 569749 sq km with a population of over 500 million have reported serious illnesses due to presence of arsenic.

Arsenic pollution of ground water in West Bengal was first reported in the early eighties. The occurrence of arsenic is mainly due to two reasons:  natural and anthropogenic.  Arsenic is widely distributed in nature and principally occurs in the form of inorganic or organic compounds.  Inorganic compounds consist of arsenite, the most toxic form and arsenate the less toxic form.  The main ores of Arsenic are arsenopyrite, arpiment, realgar and arsenopalledenite. It is present in nature as iron arsenate, iron sulphate and in calcareous soil as calcareous arsenolite.  In flood deposits, it is found as arsenite.  The main anthropogenic sources are industrial waste, phosphate, fertilizers, coal, oil, cement, mine tailing, smelting, ore processing, metal extraction, metal purification, chemicals, glass, leather, textiles, alkali, petroleum refineries, acid mines, alloys, pigments, insecticides, herbicides and catalysts.

The problem of arsenic contamination in ground water from the vast tract of alluvial aquifers in Bengal, Bihar and UP is known to have affected a population of about 50 million in different districts of India and an equal number in Bangladesh. About 63 lakh people in West Bengal State live in the arsenic belt; 69 blocks are arsenic-affected, while two are affected by fluoride. Arsenic in ground water have been reported in a range (0.05-3.2) mg/l in shallow aquifers from 61 block in 8 districts of West Bengal namely Malda, Mushirbad, Nadia, North and South 24 Pargana, Bardhaman, Howrah, and Hugli.

Arsenic levels vary depending on geological location and arsenic occurs naturally in the environment. In West Bengal, India, the mud underneath the surface of the Earth is particularly thick. This thick mud prevents water from flowing to the sea at a very fast rate. Ground water is in contact with this mud for hundreds, or even thousands of years.  The longer water is in contact with the mud, the higher the concentration of arsenic is in the water.

In West Bengal, there is increasing concern of arsenic induced diseases due to exposure of high concentration of arsenic in the Natural Geochemical environment. In this area the source of arsenic is geogenic and associated with iron pyrites in arsenic rich layers occurring in the alluvium along the Ganga River. The availability of arsenic is possible due to excessive use of ground water irrigation (e.g. up to 80 per cent of the annual replenishable recharge in north 24 Parganas for multiple cropping which causes dropping of water levels resulting exposure of the arsenic rich beds to air – oxidation of the pyrite and soubilisation of arsenic).

Arsenic concentration in ground water has been found to be in excess of permissible limit of 0.05 mg/l in a number of localized patches in Murshidabad and North 24- Pargana Districts in West Bengal. Population in the area is reported to be suffering from “Arsenic Dermatosis” by drinking arsenic rich ground water. In Ramnagar and Domkal blocks of Murshidabad district, Arsenic levels range from 0.06 mg/l to 1.90 mg/l, while in North 24-Parganas, it ranges from 0.66 to 0.9 mg/l.

Recently, the toxic metal, aluminium, has been found more than the permissible limit in the drinking water samples tested by the government water quality testing labs and other approved institutions. This is the first time that aluminium has been traced in water samples to this extent first time. Arsenic, lead, uranium, mercury, chromium, etc. have been traced earlier too. The problem related to aluminum is more pronounced in case of Amritsar, Fatehgarh Sahib, Ludhiana, Sangrur districts. It was found to be more than the permissible limit in over 70 per cent of the drinking water samples. Aluminum can cause dementia and other neurological problems. Uranium, chromium, cadmium have also been found in 1 per cent of the water samples. Uranium, chromium, cadmium and lead are also highly toxic substances and can cause serious health problems and damage the nervous system.

Ever since the startling news broke, in March 2009, that traces of uranium and other heavy metals had been found in the hair samples of children and adults at the Baba Farid Centre for Special Children in Faridkot district, Punjab, the Centre has become the focus of intense government and media scrutiny. The revelations were made by UK-based clinical toxicologist Carin Smit who noted the bizarre medical condition of the children who, until now, had been considered extreme cases of mental disability. Their limbs are deformed, they have bulges on their heads, and their eyes have grown well beyond normal size. No doubt, hair analysis may allow indirect screening of physiological excesses, deficiencies or mal-distribution of elements in the body; but, it is important to carry out more tests to assess the exact levels of uranium present in the human body, because uranium is known to cause physical deformities and damage both the kidney and the liver

Researchers at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, had found concentrations of uranium and heavy metals above the safe limit in water samples collected from various locations in Bathinda district which borders Faridkot. According to the WHO’s recommendations, the maximum concentration of uranium in water should be 20 micrograms/litre. Concentrations of uranium in water samples collected in Bathinda were found to be “very high and very unsafe from the health hazard point of view”. What is interesting about the study is a reference to “radioactive-rich granites of Tosham hills in neighbouring Haryana” whose activities were already referred to by concerned researchers in 1989. Guru Nanak Dev University study clearly suggests that the high levels of uranium in Punjab may have something to do with radioactivity in Haryana’s granite hills.

Meanwhile, speculation abounds. What baffles many is that there are no uranium mines in Punjab. One of the theories doing the rounds is that the uranium may have come from Iraq where the US army uses it in its warheads. Some suspect air contamination caused by uranium-laden winds from Afghanistan, while others feel water contamination caused by toxic scrap dumped in the state’s Sutlej and Beas rivers may be the cause. Uranium could have originated from thermal power plants. “Coal, used in thermal power plants, is known to have radioactive material like radon and uranium. Forty of the 149 samples tested were of children and adults from Bathinda.  But there are those who warn against such speculation. “Punjab is already suffering due to a cocktail of pesticides and heavy metals present in the groundwater. It is too early to say uranium is causing autism etc. It could be one of the chemical-disrupting neuro-transmitters.

Sub-soil water in Punjab is getting polluted at a faster pace now. Punjab has decided to source drinking water from canal networks in the districts of Moga and Barnala where the presence of toxic metals in sub-soil water is widespread. In areas where the problem is not that alarming, RO systems will be installed to remove toxic metals.

Against the permissible limit of 0.01 mg per litre, arsenic was 0.06 mg/l in some of the samples drawn at Abusaid in Amritsar district. Same was the case at Anayatoura and Bhakha Hari Singh village in the district. Aluminum was above the permissible limit in most of the water samples in the district. In Dangarh village of Barnala district, aluminum was found in higher quantity in some of the water samples. In Dhurkot village, high level of cadmium was found. High level of lead was also found in Bandala village of Ferozepur district, aluminum in Butewala and Roranswali villages in Ferozepur district.

Punjab is the only state in the country which is reeling under this unique and dangerous problem. The uranium content in the waters of Punjab has not only been increasing but spreading too. A recent study by Punjab health department has revealed that uranium content has been found to be 50% above the permissible WHO limit in eight districts of the state. As per state government’s survey, out of total 2,462 water samples, 1,140 samples tested positive for the radioactive metal. Water contaminated with uranium was found in Malwa districts of the state, including Mansa, Bathinda, Moga, Faridkot, Barnala, Sangrur and some parts of Ludhiana as well. Earlier, only two districts — Faridkot and Ferozepur — had reported uranium in their water and the related health problems. Punjab was the only state in the country where uranium content in the water is higher than the permissible limit set by the WHO. The water situation in Punjab was really bad. We need more scientific studies to understand the implications on health of people consuming this uranium contaminated water.

We need to know the source of uranium’s presence which is very unusual and inexplicable. As of now, we have only theories; we need to know the facts. Though there had not been any in-depth study on uranium contaminated water in Punjab, but one reason could be the presence of phosphatic fertilizers in the soil that trigger uranium content in affected areas.

Residents of 12 districts of Punjab and Haryana are consuming poisonous water as the groundwater there has been detected with arsenic levels beyond the permissible limit according to the Union Ministry of Water Resources. The ministry has directed the two states to prepare an action plan to contain the contamination. These directions were given on the basis of sample reports of the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) that found habitations of six districts each in the two states affected with arsenic in groundwater beyond the permissible limit of 0.05 milligram per litre.

According to Board regional director SK Jain, the sample reports of both states were shared with the officials concerned to take necessary action. Medical teams of both states have been asked to look for symptoms of arsenic infection in patients, especially children since they are more vulnerable, he added.

In 2014, the CGWB collected 50 groundwater samples from Punjab, of which arsenic contamination more than 0.05 MG/L was found in six districts. These include Gandiwind (Amritsar district), Patti (Tarn Taran), Jhunir (Mansa), Dhilwan (Kapurthala), Ropar and Fazilka. In fact, 30 more blocks in 13 districts of Punjab have arsenic contamination ranging between 0.01 and 0.05 Mg/L, the report says. Department of Water Supply and Sanitation, Communication and Capacity Development Unit, SAS Nagar reported that Punjab had already taken precautionary steps by installing 1,848 reverse osmosis (RO) units in 70 areas out of 182 where arsenic contamination was detected. 561 RO units had been recently sanctioned by the state government and proposal for 1,900 more had been sent to the Centre for funding.

In Haryana, arsenic levels beyond 0.05 mg/l have been found in Gharaunda and Karnal (Karnal district), Bhuna (Fatehabad), Ambala, Nuh and Nagina (Mewat), and Kharkhauda (Sonipat). However, Haryana Public Health Department had not detected any arsenic contamination in the state.

Ever since some environmentalist raised the issue, water from 2462 tubewells was collected from across Punjab. Of the 1642 results available so far, at least 1142 tested positive for presence of uranium. While most of the water was from the cotton belt in the south-western districts of the Malwa region of Punjab, Gurdaspur from the Majha belt reported the presence of arsenic in ground water. Though the exact cause could not be pinpointed immediately, the most popular theory doing the rounds indicated that the heavy metals could have leached into the soil from the excessive use of phosphate-based fertilizers.

Analysis of drinking water taken from existing hand pumps/submersible pumps, tube-wells, dug wells (underground water), and municipal water supply from the south-western districts of Punjab were found to have high Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), pH, electrical conductivity, hardness, and high content of arsenic beyond their permissible limits set by WHO along with high variability, which is a matter of great concern. 80 per cent of the total samples analyzed were having arsenic concentration above the safe limit (10 g/L). Faridkot showed maximum contamination of 92 per cent followed by Sangrur 88 per cent, Bathinda 86 per cent, Ferozepur 74 per cent, and Muktsar 60 per cent. The mean arsenic level in water samples obtained from municipal water supply of Ferozepur, Faridkot, Bathinda, Muktsar, and Sangrur is 14.14, 25.171, 23.75, 21.86, and 21.21 with SD 5.177, 5.976, 5.30, and 7.59. The mean arsenic concentration in water samples obtained from public hand pumps is 15.36. A positive correlation between pH and As concentration was observed with r 2 = 0.94. There is need doe regular monitoring of arsenic content and the seasonal variation, if any, in future.

Groundwater is the primary source of drinking water for more than 95 per cent of the population in Punjab. As per PAU study, the arsenic concentration of deep water tube wells located in Amritsar city used for domestic supply for urban population ranged from 3.8 to 19.1 ppb with mean value of 9.8 ppb. Arsenic content in hand pump water varied from 9 to 85 ppb with a mean value of 29.5 ppb. According to the safe limit of arsenic, 54 per cent and 97 per cent, water samples collected from deep water tube wells and hand pumps, respectively, were not fit for human consumption. Arsenic content in canal water varied from 0.3 to 8.8 ppb with a mean value of 2.89 ppb. Canal water has got higher oxidation potential followed by deep tube well and hand pump water. It is evident from this investigation that water extracted by hand pumps from shallow aquifers of Punjab, northwest India usually has arsenic content above the safe limit and should not be used for drinking purposes. The present study suggests the regular monitoring of arsenic content in deep tube well and shallow hand pump waters by water testing laboratories. The consumption of water having elevated concentration of arsenic above the safe limit must be discouraged. The canal water contain arsenic well below the safe limits and should be suitable alternative for human consumption than ground water.

Consumption of ground water with elevated arsenic levels (up to 3,700 mg/l in certain wells) over a prolonged period of time has resulted in serious health hazards, especially among the rural and semi-urban population in the region. Symptoms of arsenic toxicity are manifested as skin lesions, hyperkeratosis, melanosis, cancer in different organs and several other health disorders, which in some cases have proved to be lethal. Need of water for domestic as well as irrigation purposes had triggered rapid development of ground water resources in the region during the last two decades. Overdraft of ground water in an indiscriminate manner is one of the key factors responsible for the spreading of arsenic epidemic in this region. A large number of government organizations and NGO are working on this problem and to find a lasting solution.


Removal of arsenic from ground/surface water to provide safe drinking water free from primary contaminant like arsenic as well as secondary contaminants like iron and microorganisms. The arsenic removal from drinking water by physicochemical process provides process for decontamination of water with respect to arsenic. BARC developed know how of ultrafiltration (UF) based membrane technology for water decontamination with respect to microbiological contamination at both domestic and community scale is available for transfer separately. The present technology is a novel Ultrafiltration (UF) membrane assisted physicochemical process for removal of arsenic from ground/surface water to make the water safe for drinking. The Salient features are:

  • Simple and rapid
  • Can operate without electricity
  • No specific requirement for waste disposal
  • Cost effective
  • Capability of high decontamination – Product water not only free from arsenic but also free from secondary contaminants like iron, manganese and microorganisms.
  • Technology can be adopted at both domestic and community level


UF membrane assisted physicochemical process/device is capable of removing arsenic contamination from ground/surface water for drinking purposes from a feed concentration of 500 ppb or more to less than 10 ppb (which is the desirable limit set by BIS). The entire process involves two steps: 1) Sorption of arsenic species on the in situ generated sorbent by simple addition of two reagents. 2) Filtration of arsenic containing sludge using UF membrane device based on the technology developed by BARC. The two reagents required for the first step are to be prepared using the procedure given in the technology transfer document. The details of the device required for the second step is available in the form of technology with BARC and can be taken separately. These devices are also available with several licensees of BARC in the form of commercial products. All the raw materials required for preparing the reagents for removal of arsenic are available in the local market.


Starting in 2006, a team of European and Indian scientists led by Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) established a low cost chemical free method of arsenic removal ( in the state of West Bengal in India. The technology known as ‘TIPOT’ (for Technology for in-situ treatment of groundwater for potable and irrigation purposes) is based on subterranean arsenic removal (SAR) without the aid of any chemicals. The project was supported by the European Commission under Asia Pro Eco programme. Subsequently, Ramakrishna Vivekananda Mission (RKVM), one of the Indian partners of TIPOT Consortium, received a grant from the World Bank to set up six community water treatment plants in the state of West Bengal with the assistance of Queen’s University Belfast.

The conventional technologies used in India for arsenic removal are based on ‘pump and treat’ method involving either adsorption or membrane processes. Such plants are expensive to run and have problems associated with waste disposal and maintenance. In contrast, ‘TIPOT’ process based on subterranean arsenic removal (SAR) or ‘In-situ treatment’ neither uses any chemicals, nor produces any disposable waste. The installation is similar to a tube-well and all parts are easily available.

The in-situ method is cost-effective and, unlike filtration systems, eliminates the need for sludge handling. The arsenic which is trapped into the sand along with the iron flocs constitute an infinitesimal volume of the total volume being handled and hence pose very little environmental threat in its precipitated form. The whole mass remains down below unlike other processes where there is extra cost of sludge handling and messy disposal problem. The process is chemical free, simple and easy to handle. There is no restriction to the volume it can handle as long as proper time is allowed for the oxygen rich impregnated water to create the adequate oxidizing zone in the deep aquifer. It is also quite flexible with respect to the raw water quality as the efficient coefficient could be varied depending on the quality of the raw water. It involves low capital cost and minimum operating cost or expertise.

At total of six in-situ treatment plants have so far been constructed in W. Bengal.This technology could transform the way arsenic will be removed from groundwater in South Asia and other parts of the world. TIPOT technology is appropriate for the Ganga and Mekong Delta where the arsenic is of arsenopyrite origin. This land mass covers the arsenic affected zones of Eastern India, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. An estimated 70 million people are affected in India and Bangladesh by arsenic exposure and another 30 million in other ASEAN countries.


The development of arsenic removal kit requires a small laboratory with few common types of equipment like weighing balances, exhaust and common glassware’s. The cost of raw materials for preparation of reagents sufficient to treat 1000 liters of arsenic contaminated water (contamination level: 500 ppb) is approximately Rs. Eight only. The cost of UF membrane device required for filtration will depend if the filtration unit is directly purchased from the market or the service provider is manufacturing it by becoming of licensee of BARC.
Once forced to drink arsenic- contaminated ground water, residents of a remote hamlet in West Bengal near Indo-Bangla border are now purifying water from ponds and selling packaged safe drinking water to neighbouring villages. Using a new innovative technology from France, village co-operative society Madhusudankati Samabay Krishi Unnayan Samity has constructed a water purification project which converts contaminated pond water into safe drinking water.

The co-operative is now supplying arsenic-free drinking water to a hundred families located in Madhusudankanti and selling it to nearby villages of North 24 Parganas district at only 50 paise per litre.”At present we are purifying and selling 2000 litres of water every day after packing it in jars and bottles. Around 200 families from outside the village are also our customers,” according to co-operative chairman Haladhar Sharma. Labelled as ‘Sulabh Jal’, the project is funded and conceptualized by Sulabh International which had pioneered the Sulabh Sauchalya (Sulabh Toilets) in the country.

According to Sulabh founder Bindeshwar Pathak, the water purification technology had been tested in Cambodia and Madagascar but is being used on a larger scale for the first time in the village. This is the first time in the world that we have succeeded in producing pure drinking water at a very nominal cost by this new technology. Located in Gaighata block, the remote village is 14 km away from Bangladesh border. The model uses a four-stage purification process using alum and UV filter to produce clean water.”Our production cost is only 30 paise while other costs like distribution, storing, manpower come to 20 paise and so cooperative sell it easily at 50 paise per litre in jars and bottles. Every day villagers come to the plant to buy the 20-litre jars of ‘Sulabh Jal’. People from three nearby villages of Bishnupur, Faridkati and Teghoria too queue up to buy drinking water. For long they had no option but to drink arsenic-contaminated water from tube-wells. Surface water in ponds is free of arsenic but is not fit to drink in the absence of any water purification plant. The installation cost of the project was Rs 20 lakh, which is shared between the French organization ‘1001 Fontaines’, Sulabh and the villagers. Ground water in nine districts of West Bengal including North 24 Parganas has severe arsenic contamination which has affected around 16 million people in rural areas and 12 million in urban areas, according to K J Nath, president of the Institution of Public Health Engineers.


Drinking arsenic-rich water over a long period result in various health hazards, including skin problems, skin cancer, and cancer of the bladder, kidney and lung, besides other diseases. Arsenic is the biggest public-health problem for water —it’s the most toxic thing we drink. For some reason, we pay far less attention to it than we do to lesser problems. Many rocks and sediments have inert, harmless traces of arsenic locked into them. But in recent years geologists have observed that some geologic formations can become enriched in arsenic, and certain chemical conditions may cause rocks to react with groundwater and liberate the element into aquifers. Since the 1990s, the problem has been identified in some 70 countries; it is worst in Southeast Asia, where as many as 100 million people are exposed.

Arsenic (As) is known to be a very toxic element and a carcinogen to human. Even a trace amount of arsenic can be harmful to human health. The World Health Organizations (WHOs) current provisional guideline for arsenic in drinking water is 10 ppb. High level Working Group (Inter ministerial) should be formed consisting of Ministry of Water Resources, Ministry of Drinking water and sanitation, Ministry of Health and Ministry of Science and Technology; NITI Aayog and Ministry of Rural Development to solve the Isotope problem of drinking water.

The financial problem could be solved through the adoption of technology transfer through MPLAD schemes where Member of Parliament (of both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha) of the affected areas should recommend financial support for the project. The component can be sanctioned under drinking water part and labour component can be linked with the MGNEREGA scheme too. Even if there is no provision for transfer of technology component, the same can also be added to the list of provision through an amendment.

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Dr. Gursharan Singh Kainth

Dr. Gursharan Singh Kainth is Founder–Director of Guru Arjan Dev Institute of Development Studies

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