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Arsenic alarm in Bihar and Jharkhand Villages of

Dr. Nitish Priyadarshi

Thousands of people living in over hundreds of villages in different district of Bihar and
Sahebganj district of Jharkhand state in India are facing serious threat to their health due
to alarmingly high quantity of arsenic present in the underground water.

Bihar is facing one of the gravest natural disasters in the form of arsenic contamination of
ground water. In the first detailed study of ground water quality, the Department of
Environment and Water Management, A.N.College, Patna, has already submitted Interim
Reports to PHED and UNICEF about the alarming findings on arsenic poisoning cases in
the districts of Patna, Bhojpur, Vaishali and Bhagalpur. The study was conducted from
April 2004 to May 2006, the study area being confined to 10 kms. wide belt along the
Ganga river as per the instructions of PHED and UNICEF.

According to Dr.Ashok Ghosh, Principal Investigator of Project Arsenic, Dept. Of EWM,

A.N.College, these findings are just the tip of the iceberg, as more contaminated aquifers
are waiting to be detected in the remaining parts of the state. The water quality testing
was done initially by Field Test Kits and then confirmed by AAS or UV
Spectrophotometric tests. Epidemiological studies indicate that drinking water having
more than permissible arsenic levels of 10 ppb. increases the mortality rates as arsenic is
a bio-accumulative toxin.

Persons suffering from arsenicosis have not yet responded to known treatment
procedures. The high the intake of arsenic, along with under nourishment and lack of
medical help have worsened the lives of the population in the arsenic affected rural areas.
Arsenic can also contaminate standing food crops if it is present in the soil and soil water.
As Bihar Plains are highly fertile and its crops are marketed to many distant places, apart
from being locally consumed, it becomes imperative to test the levels of arsenic in the
food chain too. What is worrisome is that arsenic contaminated ground water tables have
abrupt occurrences both over time and space. This explains why a public hand pump in
village Ramnager in Maner tested 30 ppb. in the post monsoon period and more than 60
ppb. in the month of May. Also arsenic manifestation exists at different levels in different
areas. In north-west Maner, arsenic contaminated hand pumps have a shallow depth of
between 60 to 80 feet in the diara belt.

In Bhojpur, the depth of contaminated aquifers goes down to 150 feet away from new
diara land, while in Vaishali, arsenic is found in the shallow and middle aquifers at an
average distance of 5 km. away from the river bank. Regular monitoring of drinking
water from hand pumps is immediately required as a part of the mitigation strategy.
Patna, the first district to be covered, revealed pockets of high arsenic contamination,
above the acceptable limit of 10 ppb., in 171 villages in Maner, Danapur, Sampatchak,
Barh, Bakhtiarpur, , Fatuha, Khusrupur, Phulwari, Mokama, Pandarak and Patna City.

1060 village hand pumps were arsenic contaminated The highest AAS reading of arsenic
level in government hand pump water is 724 ppb. in village Naikatola in Maner, 450 ppb.
in Kasimchak village in Danapur, 553 ppb. in Ghiaspur Mahazi and 538 ppb. in Kala
Diara, Bakhtiarpur,, and 484 ppb. in Malahi Banda village in Barh. Sampatchak Block
has low contamination levels of below 50 ppb. over a larger area in most of the villages.
In Bhojpur, the highest AAS test readings are 1861 ppb. and 1064 ppb. in Pandey tola,
Barhara Block, a situation far more serious than the one represented by the much-touted
village Ojhapatti of Shahpur Block. Out of the 6292 hand pumps tested, 47.70 % were
arsenic contaminated hand pumps. In Barhara, 62.84%, in Udwantnagar 59.39%, in
Shahpur 40.41%, in Behea 37.17%, in Koilwar, 29.20%, and in Ara 25.88% of Block
level hand pumps were arsenic contaminated. In Vaishali, all the Blocks covered within
10 km. along the Ganga banks, has low level arsenic contamination at present.

In Bhagalpur district most affected areas are Kahalgaon, Pirpainti, Sabaur and Sultanganj.
A detailed study has been presented on groundwater metal contents of Sahebgunj district
in the state of Jharkhand, with special reference to arsenic. Both tubewell and well waters
have been studied separately with greater emphasis on tubewell waters. Groundwaters of
all the nine blocks of Sahebgunj district have been surveyed for iron, manganese,
calcium, magnesium, copper and zinc in addition to arsenic. Groundwaters of three
blocks of Sahebgunj, namely, Sahebgunj, Rajmahal and Udhawa have been found to be
alarmingly contaminated with arsenic present at or above 10 ppb.

Rivers flowing through the coal fields of Jharkhand have been reported to carry arsenic
responsible for arsenic poisoning in downstream areas of West Bengal. The coal fields of
Bachara and Piprawar areas of Jharkhand have contaminated the waters of the Damodar
and its tributary, the Safi. According to author, arsenic contamination arises mainly due
to the dumping of waste from the coal mines along the river bed. Coals of the area
mentioned contains sufficient amount of arsenic.

Arsenic upto 608 parts per billion (ppb) was detected against the permissible limit of 10
ppb in some villages of Kahalgaon block in Bhagalpur district in 2005. Work was carried
out by Dr. Sunil Chaudhary of TM Bhagalpur University.

A detailed work was carried out by Dr. Ashok Ghosh, Professor-in-charge, department of
environment and water management, A.N. College Patna, in the arsenic affected areas of
Bihar State. He found that out of 27,061 hand pumps, 7,218 pumps tested had arsenic
contaminated water greater than 10 ppb (26.67%). Highest arsenic value recorded was
1861 ppb. Study also revealed that 87% of the Trivalent arsenic was found in the
groundwater of Bihar State.

The study by Bihar's Public Health and Engineering Department (PHED) reveals that the
average arsenic content in drinking water in the 12 districts is 500 parts per billion (ppb).
The state capital, Patna, is among the affected areas.

According to Dr. Ghosh, a total of 16 Bihar districts (57 blocks) are affected by high
level of arsenic in the groundwater. Worst-affected districts are Bhojpur, Buxar, Vaishali,
Bhagalpur, Samstipur, Khagaria, Katihar, Chapra, Munger and Dharbanga.

A very alarming recent finding by the research group is the detection of high arsenic
content (more than 50 ppb) in the water of River Jaminia – flowing parallel to River
Ganga in Bhagalpur district of Bihar.This river merges with Ganga and water from this
river is being supplied to urban Bhagalpur without any treatment, alarmed Dr. Ghosh.

Alarmed by the severity of arsenic’s impact on human body in these villages, the team
also collected samples of hair and nail of affected persons for detail medical examination
to ascertain the level of damage, said Principal Investigators Dr. Ashok Kumar Ghosh
and Nupur Bose of A.N. College Patna. The findings indicated that a wider area,
including the fertile irrigational lands, was under the grip of arsenic.

According to another research report done by Mr. Dipanka Chakraborti in Semria Ojha
Patti village in the Middle Ganga Plain, Bihar, where tube wells replaced dug wells about
20 years ago, analyses of the arsenic content of 206 tube wells (95% of the total) showed
that 56.8% exceeded arsenic concentrations of 50 micro g/L, with 19.9% greater than
300 micro g/L, the concentration predicting overt arsenical skin lesions.