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Arsenic Expert: Millions of Indians at Risk

A Bangladeshi near Dhaka shows shows his arsenic-infected palms, Sept. 29, 2011 (file photo).
A Bangladeshi near Dhaka shows shows his arsenic-infected palms, Sept. 29, 2011 (file photo).

Dipankar Chakraborti has two obsessions -- yoga, which gets him up in the morning, and arsenic contamination, which keeps him up at night.

Director of environmental studies at Jadavpur University in West Bengal, Chakraborti has been at the forefront of a potential health crisis already affecting tens of millions of people -- arsenic groundwater contamination in his native state of West Bengal.

Decades ago his initial warnings were ignored. But the World Health Organization later validated them, describing the groundwater arsenic crisis in West Bengal and neighboring Bangladesh as the "largest mass poisoning in history."

Chakraborti says that even after decades of recognizing the problem, India needs to do more to educate its rural poor about the dangers of their drinking supply, and he also warns that use of contaminated water in agriculture could dramatically expand the scope of the problem.

Impact on the human body
Its toll on victim is not immediate. Gradual arsenic poisoning from tainted drinking water can take years to ravage the body, producing pigment patches and scaly skin -- limbs and joints swollen like balloons -- and tumorous growths on limbs and feet.

By the time even early symptoms are visible, the person is often riddled with cancer.

"After the patches appeared, soon I began getting thin," said one victim, the head of a dependent household who died within a few weeks of speaking to VOA. "Every night I used to get fever, and I began coughing up blood."

The source and possible solutions
The contaminated water comes from deep tube wells that were dug by international aid organizations in the 1970s that intended to provide a safe alternative to surface water infected with microbial pathogens. The so-called safe alternative, however, was tainted by arsenic deposits from India's nearby Ganges River.

These days, Chakraborti spends most of his time going from village to village to help arsenic victims and test water supplies. Although safer, shallower tube wells have been dug, many continue to drink from tainted ones.

Villagers also continue to use arsenic-contaminated water in agriculture, he says, creating the risk of arsenic deposits in rice, livestock, and cattle dung that is frequently used for cooking fuel.

Although Chakraborti says authorities need to do more to build awareness among remote villages -- he recommends setting up mobile laboratories to cover large affected areas of West Bengal, which act as both teaching and testing facilities that cater to the poorest Indians -- he says the longer term solution is better management of the region's abundant surface water.

"Where you have rainwater, [then] harvest rainwater; where you have lake water, use lake water," he says, explaining that modern purification technology can ensure safe consumption. "All the arsenic-affected villages in West Bengal, Bihar, U.P, Jharkand, all are surrounded by water bodies."

Chakraborti stresses that the scope of the problem means no solution will succeed unless it involves the grassroots participation of rural villagers.