The poisoned waters of Punjab

Safe drinking water, a scarce resource (Source: India Water Portal)
Safe drinking water, a scarce resource (Source: India Water Portal)

Uranium in drinking water

Uranium is a radioactive mineral found in the environment and is present in certain types of rocks and soils. However, it has no useful role in the human or animal bodily systems and is regarded as non essential. Chronic exposure to uranium in drinking water is a potential health risk and uranium accumulated in humans can result in chemical and radioactive effects. The main sites where uranium can get deposited in the body are the kidneys, the liver and the bones. The toxicity of uranium depends on the route of exposure, solubility, contact time, and route of elimination.

The long term ingestion of uranium may increase the risk of kidney damage, cancer and cardiovascular diseases, whereas experimental evidence suggests that the respiratory and reproductive systems are also affected by uranium exposure. Uranium contamination of groundwater comes from the aquifers from which the water is pumped while it can also result from human activities such as the use of fertilisers, mining, and combustion from coal and other fuels.

Study on risks posed by high concentrations of uranium in drinking water

The paper titled 'Uranium and other heavy toxic elements distribution in the drinking water samples of SW-Punjab, India', published in the Journal of Radiation Research and Applied Sciences, describes the findings of the study that aimed at evaluating the concentration of uranium and other trace elements in drinking water samples collected from four SW districts of Punjab namely, Bathinda, Mansa, Faridkot and Ferozepur.

The study investigated the concentration levels of these trace elements in the drinking water used by people in the area by comparing them with recommended standards prescribed by national/international organisations, and evaluated the health risks posed by excessive concentrations of these metals in the water. 

Laser fluorimetry was used for analyses of water samples for uranium concentrations. Observations were compared with the permissible limits of 30 µgl­-¹ and 60 µgl­-¹ prescribed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) respectively.

Findings of the study

  • Around 68% of the water samples collected from the four districts were found to exceed the permissible limits prescribed by WHO.



  • 43% of the water samples collected were found to exceed the permissible limits prescribed by AERB.

  • The concentration of other heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, nickel, zinc and chromium were also observed to be above their respective safe limits given by WHO.
  • These were found to pose serious radiological and chemical risks to human health in the region.

The paper ends by informing that the higher concentrations of uranium in the water samples of SW Punjab region may be because of local natural geology due to industrial activities in the region or due to excessive use of phosphate fertilisers. The study region falls in the major cotton belt of Punjab (Malwa region of Punjab), which is characterised by the widespread use of pesticides like cyhalothrein and fertilisers such as diammonium phosphate, urea, super phosphate and NPK by farmers, which might have also contributed to the high concentration of uranium observed in the groundwater of this region, as well as the heavy toxic elements.

Please download a copy of the paper below.