Arsenic alarm in heartland villages

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By TAPAS CHAKRABORTY in Ballia
  • Published 28.12.05
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Ballia, Dec. 28: A silent killer is stalking the villagers of Ballia. Although it strikes in the form of cancer, experts feel arsenic poisoning is the real assassin.

The arsenicosis alarm was first sounded by doctors in Delhi in 2003 after they treated Dinanath Singh from Rajpur in Ballia. The 62-year-old villager was diagnosed with skin cancer but doctors found his was also a case of arsenic poisoning.

Three years earlier, Dinanath’s two daughters also died of cancer. Due to acute arsenicosis, Dinanath’s middle finger had to be removed.

The villager’s case sparked two years of extensive studies by geologists and environment activists on the water being consumed in villages in a 15-km-belt in Ballia district. The surveys have found high dose of arsenic in the water in 55 villages of the eastern Uttar Pradesh district.

Environmentalists have also found out that in the village of Sughar Chapra, about a kilometre from Rajpur, Rishidev Yadav’s family lost four members to cancer back in 1987. “We did not know till recently that arsenic in water could have been the cause of those deaths,” Yadav said.

A test on Ram Bahadur Singh, another villager, revealed that his body contained 6,310 parts per billion of arsenic. The normal count should not be above 225 parts per billion. “I feel unusually dry in my skin and suffer from occasional bouts of pain from the pigmentation that has erupted,” Singh said.

The intake of arsenic-poisoned water ruins the skin and central nervous system, leads to cardiovascular diseases that may turn cancerous, Dr Vinod Khaitan, who treats patients of arsenicosis in Delhi, said. The fact that cases of cancer in the Ballia villages are abnormally high could probably be a confirmation of this.

A study by Unicef and the Jal Nigam, an Uttar Pradesh government organisation, shows that of 5,651 samples of water collected in Ballia, 4,159 contained arsenic levels higher than the permissible limit.

“People in the villages used to think till recently that the pigmentation on their skin was due to some external infection,” Unicef project officer Ross Nickson said. It was only when these became severe and people had to go for amputation that the truth became known, he added.

The district administration of Ballia, however, reacted with disbelief to the reports. They filed a defamation case against the activists screaming “arsenicosis”.

“Some officers might have been under pressure as the villagers complained that those affected with the disease were? socially boycotted. Girls in the affected villages were not getting married because of this,” one officer said.

The state government has now woken up to the reality.

A task force of members from the Jal Nigam, Central Ground Water Board, IIT Kanpur, King George Medical College and the Industrial Toxicology Research Centre, has been formed, minister in charge of revenue Ambika Chaudhary, who comes from Ballia, said. All taps in the affected villages have been sealed and residents are being treated, he said.