Patna: Guddu, 12, pulls off his shirt to reveal white marks and spots on his body. He suffers from melanosis (skin discolouration), said to be triggered by consuming water with high arsenic content.
Other residents of Gyantoli village in Sahebpur Kamal block of Begusarai district (around 140km northeast of Patna), too bear proof of arsenic poisoning in the water they consume, like keratosis (dry rough patches and tiny bumps on skin).
A team of researchers also found cases of skin cancer, gallbladder cancer, hepatitis B and liver problems, all linked to arsenic in water. There were four cases of cancer, three of hepatitis B and around 20 of keratosis, melanosis and liver problems. The research is being conducted as part of the Nutri-SAM project, a joint project of the University of Salford (UK), Mahavir Cancer Sansthan and AN College.
The principal investigator of the research team, Ashok Ghosh, also the chairman of the Bihar State Pollution Control Board, said it was the first time they carried out research in the village. Earlier, they had found high arsenic contamination in water in other districts.
"The arsenic level was 500 micrograms per litre, which is very high," Ghosh said. "Because of this, people here are found with severe arsenicosis problems. This happens when people are consuming dangerous levels of arsenic over a period of time. The most common problems are keratosis and melanosis, while liver, cancer and Hepatitis-B are also found among people. We have taken hair, blood and nail samples to confirm the diseases are linked to consumption of water with high arsenic content. Some of the samples have been tested and have indicated high arsenic presence. We are soon going to test the remaining samples but for now we can confirm that arsenic in the water is to blame."
What is worrisome is that neither the government nor any private organisation has taken up arsenic mitigation measures. "One of the main reasons behind high arsenic concentration in water is the presence of shallow hand pumps in the village. These are the only source of drinking water. Such handpumps, around 60-70ft deep, increase the risk of exposure to arsenic. Handpumps have to be dug deeper, 250ft or more, to provide safe water and prevent arsenic contamination, because arsenic is usually present in the upper surface," Ghosh said. "But the hand pumps that the government has installed are all shallow ones. No private organisation has installed water filters to give the residents access to arsenic-free water. Even the chief minister's "Har Ghar Nal Ka Jal" scheme under his seven resolves has also not made inroads in the village."
Ghosh said the project also aims to see arsenic exposure and nutritional status. "Though there is high arsenic contamination in water of neighbouring Bengal, too, we have found that people there are less exposed to disorders. We are trying to find out whether nutrition alleviates arsenicosis. We are taking food samples from the places we are covering. Through this, we would also be able to discover if arsenic is reaching people's body through certain food products," Ghosh said.
Others on the research project include AN College professor Nupur Bose and Mahavir Cancer Sansthan doctors Arun Kumar and Ranjit Kumar. Three junior research fellows who are also part of the team include Siddharth, Shalini and Pushpa.