Arsenic Poisoning

India Must Face Facts

M N Majumder

The Task Force Report Commissioned at the behest of the National Human Rights Commission on the" Occurrence of High Arsenic Content in Ground water" in Eastern UP, Bihar ,West Bengal, Jharkhand and Assam was considered by a 30-member committee that expressed strong displeasure over why little action has been taken so far, nor even serious efforts have been made in collecting relevant information and data on arsenicosis among humans and animals of the affected areas. They also expressed serious misgivings over the State Governments' indifference in extending the necessary relief measures to the victims most of which come from economically backward areas and do not have adequate nutrition. Senior BJP leader and Chairman of the Committee of Estimates M M Joshi urged upon the center to act firmly to initiate actions to contain the growing arsenic menace. Do the States have no responsibilities? The committee held that "there should be no compromise on the health of the people". Now people would like to see how much they would be or can be true to their words.

India is now passing through strange times. In West Bengal people hoped political change will bring better days but strange affairs are taking place. A chief minister (Chennai) is under arrest and in WB a minister is arrested. Would President's Rule be imposed again in WB? The backward looking BJP appears serious on a very important public health problem which remained neglected during 34 years of progressive left rule in WB.

The condition of some arsenic affected 7 crore people mainly from WB to UP are frightening. What little investigation has been made so far, that too mostly by unofficial agencies, is only the tip of the iceberg. The discovery of arsenicosis at Calcutta’s School of Tropical Medicine in 1983 and their follow up actions at the School of Environmental Studies under the untiring efforts of Dr Dipankar Chakrabarty appears to be a classic example of the famous Schopen-hauer quote :"AII truth passes through three stages : First, it is ridiculed. Second it is violently opposed. Third it is accepted as self evident".

The arsenic issue illustrates the veracity of the Schopenhauer quote. The LF Govt under the Chief Ministership of Jyoti Basu refused to accept the very existence of ithe arsenic problem which they even castigated as a political conspiracy of maligning the image of the progressive LFG. Even posted a spy outside Dr Chakrabarty's lab who watched the happenings in the lab for about a year and left disgusted. But finally after the International Conference held in 1995, scientific people of the world saw and heard everything . Then the genuinity of the geogenic arsenic problem in WB and Bangladesh was internationally accepted. After the Calcutta discoveries much work were done elsewhere in India and other developing countries. Arsenic has been found in significant levels in most of the riverine alluvium mainly in Asian countries .After the Manchester beer tragedy of 1900 AD, due to arsenic contaminated beer, the Committee appointed under the chairmanship of Lord Kelvin recommended 150 microgram/litre as the highest permissible upper limit for arsenic. Now after much information and research the permissible upper safe limit was brought down to 50 microgram per litre of drinking water. At present WHO recommends 10 microgram per litre. EPA of US also lowered the maximum permissible limit to 10 microgram per litre. But the Government of India (GoI) continues to stick to 50 micro gram/litre. Ideally it should be Zero which is difficult because of cost and technological difficulties. Knowledgeable people believe that arsenic and fluoride are dangerously harmful for man at all concentrations, the more the worse. There is no and there cannot be any safe threshold both for arsenic and fluoride. Arsenic is not present in the water and food of the Developed Countries. Whatever problem they had were solved long ago by their governments with the advices of the scientists. But fluoride is also very harmful and is totally kept outside their food, water and the environment. Strangely and sadly fluoride is allowed in the water and toothpaste and other dentrifices in USA and some of its lackey countries for reasons which are complex and political which this writer has tried to elaborate in a published book (NBT, 2014). Fluoride is completely banished in all the developed countries, except USA's some states and some countries like New Zealand , Australia . But it is eminently present in all the underdeveloped countries, India in particular.

People affected with arsenicosis are numerous in India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam, China etc. So it is difficult for scientists from the Developed countries to come to India or Bangladesh and do research for long periods with sophisticated instruments and scientific researchers on the effect of smaller and smaller doses of arsenic on man and animals. Still some works have been done. Chinese works are very good. Herein is given one or two examples.

Studies on the association between chronic arsenic exposure and children's intelligence were conducted at Ronpibun sub-district of Thailand (Siripitayakunkit et al, 1995) and it was found that arsenic levels could explain 14% of the variation in IQ. The brain growth spurt runs from mid-pregnancy to about 3 to 4 years in humans. Arsenic in hair was measured in children (6-9 years age group) and IQ with Wechsler Intelligence Scale taking into account the confounding factors. They found:

Average IQ score (IQ 90-100) : deceased from 56.8 to 40.0%
Bright normal (IQ 110-120) : decreased from 9.1 to 4.2%
Dull normal (IQ 80-90) : increased from 22.7 to 37.9%
Mentally retarded (IQ<80) : from 0 to 6.3%

Recently in a cross-sectional study of 201 children in Araihazar, Dhaka, exposures to arsenic in drinking water has been shown to lower the scores on tests that measure children's intellectual function before and after adjustment for socio-demographic features (San-Xiang Wang et al, 2007). In an earlier study a team of scientists under Gail Wasserman of Columbia University (2004) have noted phenomenal decrease in intellectual and cognitive functions because of arsenic exposure. Water arsenic was associated with reduced intellectual function, in a dose-response manner, such that children with water arsenic levels > 50 microgram/L achieved significantly lower Performance and Full-Scale scores than did children with water arsenic levels < 5.5 microgram/L. The association was generally stronger for well-water arsenic than for urinary arsenic.. Some MIT and Thai researchers jointly investigated and found that prenatal arsenic exposures in newborns affected 450 genes whose expressions are Effected so much that their IQ's became lowered. Of these 450 affected genes 11 (eleven) have been identified as arsenic biomarkers and persist throughout their life. (Lena Samson and Rebecca Fry, 2007). A recent paper (Wasserman et al., 2014) reports that Maine School Children, USA, in grades 3-5 residing there for 7.34 years had their IQ's reduced by 4.5 to 6.5 points.

But what about the groundwater borne arsenic and fluoride in rural India which are spoiling the newborns even before their births? Practically nothing. Undernourished children born to malnourished mothers exposed to geogenic arsenic and/or fluoride are bringing in future populations who are physically underdeveloped, some are even crippled and intellectually deficient.. This present scenario will escalate in future : No more India will get brainy children with beautiful minds from the rural areas which used to happen at earlier times. Evidently it is due to unwise massive withdrawal of ground water and indiscriminate sinking of tube wells and unscientific mining and neglecting traditional water harvesting technologies.

Way Out
The neurotoxicity of arsenic and fluoride are comparable to lead and mercury as occur in tetraethyl lead formerly added to gasoline for automobiles and mercury in aqueous environment. When in mid- 1970's it was found out that atmospheric lead burden mainly from the combustion of leaded gasoline was increasing the blood lead level particularly in children, which was responsible for their behavioral disorders and cognitive and intellectual deficiencies, much research funding was made in US as a result of which the world now had lead free gasoline. It became in vogue , in USA from the 1980s and in India from 2000s.

In India some efforts have been made to provide bacteria safe drinking water by sinking tube wells even in rural areas. But these unwittingly became the source of graver dangers of arsenic and fluoride poisoning. It is like opening up of Pandora's box. The traditional culture of collection of rain and flood waters in tanks, lakes and rivers and using them for human use in cultivation and domestic purposes was wise because all such waters are free from arsenic and fluoride. S&T as yet cannot offer any easy solution to the removal of these two deadly toxins, but traditional water harvesting technology with inclusion of proper removal of microbes and pesticide residues is the only good solution that can be envisaged.

A modern scientific solution to the arsenic problem exists which is practiced in some parts of Europe and America, that is called the In-situ Remediation or Subterranean arsenic removal that periodically injects air (or better oxygen) through the tube well pipes that make the aquifers less reducing, indeed somewhat oxidizing, which keep the arsenic bound up with the aquifer ferric iron and arsenic free water can be pumped out. But actual establishment of such technology needs works of committed talented scientists and technologists from diverse fields which is lacking here as also the political will that can make good funding. But Gol gives higher priority to Mars Mission where many good brains are engaged, and hundreds and thousands of crores of rupees are spent.

Michael Walkes, an American inorganic cancer specialist said not long ago that governments of arsenic endemic regions of their countries should provide, if nothing else can be done, arsenic-free water to pregnant mothers. Salvador Allende, the assassinated (1973) Chilean Socialist President provided fluoride-free water and milk to pregnant mothers in bottles. People in this hapless land will be eagerly waiting to see what the new Modi Govt does or what the National Human Rights commission can do.

Vol. 47, No. 26, Jan 4 - 10, 2015