Arsenic

Arsenic was a very rarely heard term in the water sector till a few decades back. However, in recent years, the number of areas reporting arsenic contamination have gone up drastically with over 20 countries from different parts of the world reporting arsenic contamination of groundwater (Bordoloi, 2012). With the constantly increasing number of occurrences, especially in the South Asian region, it is now recognized as a major public health concern affecting a large number of people around the world.

In South Asia, arsenic contamination in groundwater in the Ganga- Brahmaputra fluvial plains in India and Padma-Meghna fluvial plains in Bangladesh has been found to have a huge impact on human health and its consequences have been reported as the world’s biggest natural groundwater calamities. In India,  West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh in the flood plains of the Ganga, Assam and Manipur in the flood plains of the Brahamaputra and Imphal rivers and Rajnandgaon village in Chhattisgarh state have been reported to be affected by arsenic contamination in groundwater (Ghosh and Singh, nd)

What is arsenic?
Arsenic (As) is an odourless and tasteless metalloid widely distributed in the earth’s crust. Elemental arsenic is a member of Group VA of the periodic table, with nitrogen, phosphorus, antimony and bismuth. It has an atomic number of 33 and an atomic mass of 74.91.

What are the forms of arsenic available in nature?
Arsenic and its compounds occur in crystalline, powder,  amorphous or vitreous forms. It usually occurs in trace quantities in all rocks, soil, water and air. It is the 26th abundant element in the earth's crust.

Which form of arsenic is the most toxic?
Arsenite [As (III)] is most toxic form of arsenic and causes acute toxicity. Forms of arsenic such as As (III) and As (V) lead to chronic toxicity. Previously it was thought that methylated forms of arsenic [MMA (V), DMA (V)] were less toxic. However, current studies indicate that these two forms of arsenic are highly toxic.

What are the different exposure sources of arsenic?Health effects of arsenic pollution in West Bengal. Source: India Water PortalThe exposure sources of arsenic in the environment include natural and anthropogenic sources:
Natural – Leaching of ambient arsenic in groundwater from sediments containing arsenic bearing minerals; leaching and percolation of arsenic in soils.
Anthropogenic – Agrochemicals, wood preservatives, industrial sources, mineral processing, acid mine drainage, burning of fossil fuels etc.

How does arsenic enter the human body?
Arsenic can get into the human body through drinking water as well as eating food that has been contaminated with arsenic

How does arsenic get into drinking water?
Because it occurs naturally in the environment and as a by-product of some agricultural and industrial activities, it can enter drinking water through the ground or as runoff into surface water sources.

How does arsenic become a part of the food cycle?
When agricultural fields are irrigated with arsenic contaminated groundwater, inorganic forms of arsenic get absorbed by the plants and hence arsenic enters the food cycle.

Is arsenic always harmful in food?
Arsenic present in inorganic forms  as arsenite and arsenate is toxic. However, organic forms of arsenic like arsenobetaine, arsenocholine, arsenosugar, are non-toxic (these forms are mainly present in sea foods).

What happens to the arsenic that gets inside the human body?
Arsenic in drinking water is absorbed through the intestine into the bloodstream through which it reaches the various organs. The human body normally gets rid of smaller amounts of arsenic through urine. However, if there are large amounts of arsenic, the remaining arsenic accumulates inside the body and can lead to adverse health effects. However, the mechanisms underlying the adverse health effects by arsenic are not completely known. The level of accumulated arsenic can be known by investigating nail and hair samples.

What is Arsenicosis?
Arsenicosis is the medical word for arsenic poisoning, which occurs due to accumulation of large amounts of arsenic in the body.
Arsenicosis leads to adverse health effects through inhibition of essential enzymes, which ultimately leads to death from multi-system organ failure.

What are the health effects of arsenic poisoning?
Arsenic causes or increases the risk of numerous illnesses. It leads to skin damage including keratosis and skin cancer, internal cancers such as that of the lung and bladder, and diseases of the vascular system. Other health problems, such as diabetes, cancers of the other organs and adverse reproductive outcomes have been observed, but the evidence is not yet conclusive, although it keeps increasing.

What is the accepted standard of arsenic concentration in drinking water?
The guideline value or maximum contaminant level (MCL) for arsenic in drinking water is 10 ppb (according to WHO) followed by most of the developed countries. In developing countries including India and Bangladesh, 50 ppb is considered as the accepted level for arsenic in drinking water.

How much exposure to arsenic contaminated water is expected to result in skin lesions?
Evidence from the field has indicated that people drinking arsenic contaminated water for a couple of years may show arsenical skin lesions. The risk has been found to be more among people who are exposed to water contaminted with arsenic above levels of  500 μg/l . However, studies also indicate that even when exposed to a similar risk, all individuals do not display symptoms of skin lesions. The exact reason for this is not yet known.

Can one use surface water and rainwater and dugwell water as an arsenic free drinking water source? How?
These sources can be used for drinking after proper treatment against bacterial contamination and other toxins. Most of the dugwells are arsenic safe, but some of the dugwells could be contaminated with arsenic. Surface water is not usually contaminated with arsenic.

Does boiling remove arsenic from water?
No, arsenic cannot be removed by boiling as it is not a volatile substance. Rather, its concentration increases as water evaporates during boiling.

Is arsenicosis contagious?
No, it is not contagious.

How can one know if their tubewell is arsenic contaminated?
Arsenic has no distinctive taste, colour and odour. After proper collection and preservation, the water sample has to be analyzed for arsenic from an authorized analytical laboratory. Certified field kits can also serve the purpose, but these kits are only indicative in nature and not conclusive.

What are the biomarkers of arsenic?
Hair, nails, urine and skin scales of the person consuming arsenic contaminated water.

Are results based on field kit analysis a reliable method to assess the presence of arsenic in water?
Field kit analysis results may be accepted as an indicative result and may be conclusively accepted only after verification with laboratory procedures of testing. In the past, it has been observed that field kit analysis results have often turned out to be inaccurate.

Can arsenic affect an unborn child?
Although there is no evidence that arsenic can harm pregnant women or their fetuses, studies in animals have shown that doses of arsenic that are large enough to cause illness in pregnant females may cause low birth weight, fetal malformations, or fetal death.

References

The Arsenic Knowledge Network

What is the Arsenic Network?Arsenic knowledge network logo
The Arsenic Network is a knowledge-driven dynamic network of partner organizations and individual members, anchored by SaciWATERs and Arghyam, for sharing a common vision of bringing systematic and structural changes in arsenic mitigation strategies across India.

The Network is an attempt to create a repository of knowledge in arsenic studies across South Asia and enable action based on this knowledge, towards addressing the issue on ground by supporting coordinated efforts for arsenic mitigation.

To join the network, please mail us at contact@indiawaterportal.org.

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Pages

As climate change handshakes water contamination, we pass by very much uncertain times.

Climate change triggered heat waves threaten water availability

Ninjallama rues as she remembers, " It was a terrible summer. The heat wave was killing. Three people died in my village. People with skeletal fluorosis suffered .. "

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A workshop highlights the need to give a boost to affordable household water treatment and storage technologies.

India has the most people in the world without access to safe drinking water (133.9 million). Many studies indicate that poor and marginalized populations are the worst affected from waterborne diseases resulting from the consumption of contaminated water. The issue warrants urgent attention as each year over 140,000 children under age five die from diarrheal diseases alone.

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For Har Ghar Nal Ka Jal to succeed, the state needs to look at water harvesting to augment groundwater availability.

Water is a precious natural resource that ensures human well-being. However, across the globe there is a severe water crisis, which is heightened by issues of inaccessibility and contamination.

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Topics

Sub-Categories

Regions

The recent COVID -19 pandemic highlights the important role that access to clean water can play in dealing with such diseases in the future.

This month has been seeing a different kind of a scare world over, that of the deadly corona virus pandemic that has been spreading rapidly, infecting people and leading to a rising number of deaths in numerous countries. India too is in the line of fire with the total number of active COVID-2019 cases reaching 223 as on 20th March 2020.

The growing threat of the corona virus

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Regions

What can be learnt from past experiences on scaling up coverage of piped water supply?

Efforts are underway by both state and central governments to improve access to safe and adequate drinking water to people, and nationally, as on 31 December 2018, 79% of rural habitations had been covered at 40 litres per capita per day (lpcd) but only 47% at 55 lpcd. Yet, in spite of the big push towards piped water supply in rural areas, the coverage continued to be poor.

Topics

Sub-Categories

Regions

There is a need to focus on the “first mile” i.e. communities across rural India to be able to ensure sustainability and scalability for piped water supply.

Millions of Indian women can take up to six trips a day to gather and transport water, which takes up a major part of their day. During scorching summers when many sources dry up, their drudgery gets even worse. Stories of girls dropping out of school to share the burden of carrying water are also not unheard of.

Attachments

Topics

Sub-Categories

Regions

Why women need to be trained and engaged in monitoring and surveillance of water quality at the community level in rural India?

Historically, water is a gendered burden, with women being the primary caregivers responsible for cooking, washing and cleaning chores in the house and in modern times in institutions (teachers, anganwadi and healthcare workers). Women have traditionally been associated with various water related tasks - be it collecting, fetching, or purifying water.

Attachments

Topics

Sub-Categories

Regions

While the government has passed a draft notification to bar use of Reverse Osmosis (RO) purifiers in cities, what does evidence on the ground tell us?

The Government of India has passed a draft notification to bar membrane based systems such as Reverse Osmosis (RO) to be used as domestic purifiers in cities where the tap water is safe according to the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) norms. This is to comply with an order of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) that proposed a ban on RO in the NCR region.

Topics

Sub-Categories

Regions

Decentralised groundwater governance frameworks that integrate democratic institutional mechanisms are needed to deal with the current groundwater crisis in India.

The challenges to sustain groundwater dependency in India are many where groundwater over extraction is not only leading to rapid depletion of the resource, but also giving rise to water quality issues in a situation where the response at the level of policy continues to be lukewarm.

Attachments

Topics

Sub-Categories

Regions

RO purifiers can lead to huge wastage of water. A draft notification by the Environment Ministry seeks user’s views on banning RO purifiers in areas where water conforms to BIS norms.

The use of reverse osmosis (RO) purifiers has become a contentious issue, mainly because of the amount of water that is wasted following its use. Last May, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) issued an order to ban RO purifiers in cases where the total dissolved solids in the water source were less than 500 mg/litre.

Topics

Sub-Categories

Regions

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