How arsenic finds its way to food chain, ‘hurts social fabric’ too

Arsenicosis often leaves women more affected with social stigma.

WrittenBy:Hridayesh Joshi
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“When I was in my maayka (maternal home) before my marriage, I had no spots on my body…the problems came up after coming here. The water is really bad,” says Seemadevi, in Karkatpur village of Ghazipur district in Uttar Pradesh.

“The disease first happened to my father- and mother-in-law; now it is happening to us. Then it’d happen to children…would anyone like to marry off their daughter here,” asks the 40-year-old, who suffers from skin ailments due to exposure to high levels of arsenic.

On December 13 last year, in reply to a question in Rajya Sabha, the government said that 107 areas in 10 districts of UP are affected by the element. This list does not include Ghazipur, but independent researchers have found hazardous levels of arsenic in water here. This triggers arsenicosis, with dark patches and rashes on the skin, especially on the palms, back and feet, emerging as common symptoms. As organs develop problems, the risks of cancer increase.

Women, hiding skin diseases, seemed to suffer a higher sense of social stigma.

“The situation was way worse 30 to 40 years ago…the male family members would tell the doctor and bring medicines…a whole generation of women faced it without telling anyone,” says Nupur Bose, a professor at the geography and water management department of Patna’s AN college. “When we went to the field in 2004, women were absolutely segregated﹘they lived behind the purdah (veil). If they had any of the symptoms or illness, they used to communicate it to the male members, and the male members used to visit the doctor’s dispensary, get the medicines…When I went to the field initially, they took me inside their homes and showed me various symptoms. It was tragic.”

On March 22 last year, the government accepted in the House that 150 districts of 21 states have arsenic levels higher than the safety limit. These included 22 of 38 districts in Bihar, nine of 23 districts in West Bengal, besides those in Assam and UP.

Recalling a research trip to arsenic-affected areas of Bihar’s Bhagalpur nearly 10 years ago, Bose says her suspicion turned correct when she brought back some sugarcane juice that was offered to her for testing. “There was 54 PPB (parts per billion) arsenic in that juice…while we did not drink the water from that village, the sugarcane juice we drank had five-and-a-half times more arsenic than the safety limit.”

But what’s behind arsenic pollution?

There are several reasons, but primarily the dependence on groundwater and arsenic making its way to the food chain. Ganga Basin states seem to be the most vulnerable.

According to the Central Ground Water Board, the element is present above the safety limit in drinking water in 21 states. According to the Jal Shakti ministry and National Rural Drinking Water Programme, more than 1.25 crore people are exposed. According to norms, water shouldn’t have more than 10 micrograms per litre (10 PPB) arsenic in it but it is now above the safety limit in paddy, wheat, potato and vegetable crops. A few researchers have also attributed a higher exposure to arsenic to dairy products and use of cow dung for cooking.

“Arsenic in the food chain increases the disease burden. The water you’re drinking has arsenic in it, the food you’re eating too,” says Dr Ashok Kumar Ghosh of the Mahavir Cancer Institute and Research Centre in Patna.

While surface water from sources such as rivers and ponds is considered arsenic-free, it is groundwater which experts blame for higher risks. And according to the Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation, the use of surface water is decreasing in farming, while there has been a rise in the use of groundwater.

In the 1960s, only 1 percent of water for irrigation came from borewells, and this figure jumped to 60 percent by 2006. It stood at 46 percent in 2014-15, according to a ministry report.

The very structure of farming points to a compulsion to use polluted water, with most of the water in the country being polluted, according to professor Deepankar Saha﹘a groundwater management expert who has worked with the Central Ground Water Board. “Today, there are at least 23 million (2.3 crore) tubewells (including motor borewells) being used for irrigation across the country, and most of them are extracting water from shallow aquifers. Can these be shut down?”

The use of groundwater for irrigation has increased in the last six decades.

In March 2021, the government was asked in the Lok Sabha if the danger of arsenic entering the food chain via polluted water is increasing. The government said “there is no special information available” but it “has been said that serious health effects can be seen upon drinking water polluted over the BIS limit”.

In April 2015, the government had accepted in parliament that paddy crops grown in the Ganga basin had arsenic but it was within safety limits and without health risks.

However, professor Tadit Roy Chaudhury, an arsenic expert and a teacher of environmental studies at Jadavpur University in West Bengal, disagrees. He says not only do vegetables and crops have high amounts of arsenic, but it is also of the harmful type. “Inorganic arsenic is entering the food chain which can be most dangerous and can be carcinogenic…the other is organic which is found in ocean areas. When we eat seafood like prawns and crabs every day, it enters our body in huge quantities but this organic arsenic is not harmful to us, but inorganic arsenic poses big dangers.”

Researchers at Jadavpur University confirmed the presence of arsenic in cow dung. They found that 25 percent of the element present in smoke, from cow dung used for cooking, is inhaled by women, posing a risk of cancer.

Chaudhury says as animals like cows and buffaloes drink 40 to 50 litres of water each day, traces of arsenic from polluted water in dairy products and dung are inevitable.

However, Dr Ghosh says the presence of arsenic is less in water as compared to the food in several places. “One of the reasons could be that it's not necessary that a crop is being consumed at the same place it is being grown.”

In arsenic-affected areas, even breast milk may pose health risks for babies, and Nupur Bose says that is “subject of research for researchers”.

The way ahead

The volume of research on tackling the menace of arsenic in the food chain has grown over the past decade.

In West Bengal, scientists tried to develop a breed of paddy whose grain is insulated against the effects of arsenic. This could be particularly helpful as many states along the Ganga strip have rice as among the main crops.

According to a paper published in Science Direct last year, the use of potassium humate as a fertiliser stops arsenic from entering the crop and boosts the yield.

However, there are other risks too as the element may find its way to crops used as fodder﹘it enters rice stems given to goats, cows and buffaloes. “From the milk of animals, arsenic again enters the food chain,” says professor Chaudhury.

Saurabh Singh, who has worked on the issue over the last 17 years through his association with the Varanasi-based NGO Inner Voice Foundation, says, “Besides killing many people, this disease (arsenicosis) has hurt the social fabric. The government should get clean water to all these villages so that some trust can be gained.”

Newslaundry sent a list of questions to Akhand Pratap Singh, executive director of UP water and sanitation mission and special secretary of the Namami Gange and rural water supply department. Queries were also sent to the DMs of Ghazipur and Ballia, which are among the most affected districts in UP. This report will be updated if we receive a response.

In part 3: Widows across villages, and truth behind govt claims

(This report has been brought about with help from the Thakur Family Foundation; the foundation has not interfered in any editorial decision)

Read the first part of the series here.

Also see
article imageWhy this Arsenic Belt village has no use for Bengal election

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