Patna: The high level of arsenic in ground water is causing and spreading cancer on either side of the Ganga in Bihar, according to experts.
The most affected are the poorest of the poor. A.K. Ghosh, a Patna- based arsenic expert, said a large number of cases had been reported from the districts along the river.
"It's a matter of serious concern," Ghosh, professor at the department of environment and water management at AN College, Patna, told IANS. He has conducted several arsenic field surveys in the last ten years.
According to a 2014 study by Ghosh, 18 of the 38 districts of Bihar were affected by ground water arsenic. The worst affected districts were Bhojpur, Buxar, Vaishali, Bhagalpur and Samastipur.
Scientists at the Patna-based Mahavir Cancer Sansthan (MCS) said in their latest research study that arsenic had been found in tissues of patients suffering from cancer. The source of the offending chemical element was drinking water, they stated.
The scientists concluded that the probability of two types of cancer (skin and gall bladder) was due to ingestion of drinking water in which arsenic presence was more than 300 parts per billion (ppb).
Their research also said arsenic increases the possibility of DNA damage. The MCS study was based on 200 cancer patients from Bhojpur, Vaishali and Buxar.
The study headed by Dr Arun Kumar observed that arsenic might not be the single factor in causing cancer, but its effect gets multiplied when combined with other carcinogens.
According to an official report of the state health department, around 75,000 new cancer cases are detected annually in Bihar.
Of these, the highest number of cases are reported from districts affected by arsenic.
Ghosh said that several patients often moved out of Bihar for treatment, making it difficult to identify the exact number of cases in the state.
A cancer specialist, Dr A.J.K Singh said arsenic poisoning was one of the main factors for cancer of prostrate, liver and gall bladder in the state, adding that the poorest were hit hard by it.
Singh said the government should join hands with different organisations to get rid of arsenic from drinking water.
Water samples collected at random from 44,000 tubewells by officials in affected districts found that arsenic concentration was above the World Health Organisation's permissible limit of 10 parts per billion (ppb) in most of them. The India government's guidelines peg the permissible limit at 50 ppb.
The highest level of concentration was found in Bhojpur at 1861 ppb, followed by Buxar at 1230 ppb and Bhagalpur at 915 ppb. Even Patna district had a very high incidence of 760 ppb.
Last year, a state government report based on a survey of water samples collected from 19,961 tubewells in 398 villages, found that arsenic concentration was above 10 ppb in 310 villages and above 50 ppb in 235 villages.
Bihar's Minister for Public Health Department Krishnanandan Prasad Verma told the State Assembly last week that 13 districts in the Gangetic plain had more arsenic content than the permissible limit of 50 ppb.
Experts say a large number of hand pumps in Bihar need to be painted red -- warning against use -- and sealed.
Arsenic was also finding its way into agricultural products like rice, tomato, maize, wheat and spinach. Often, over-extraction of water through hand pumps worsened the situation by raising the concentration levels.
The source of arsenic, according to experts, was siltation from the Himalayas which gets deposited downstream through the Ganga. In its natural form of arsenopyrite (iron arsenic sulfide), it is insoluble in water.
Arsenic, an odourless and tasteless semi-metal element, occurs naturally in the environment and is sometimes deposited as a by-product of agriculture processing and industrial use.
(Imran Khan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)