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27 Apr 2017

Bihar's cancer woes: Arsenic-contaminated drinking water affects lakhs

Mumbai's Tata Memorial Hospital, a top cancer treatment facility, yearly gets around 25,000 patients from across India.

Surprisingly, Bihar's 400-bed Mahavir Cancer Sansthan gets 22,000 patients from only Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Nepal.

What's causing the strikingly high number of patients there?

Arsenic toxicity of drinking water in these regions is the likely reason; most patients suffer from cancers associated with high arsenic levels.

In context

Bihar's arsenic toxicity problem

Cancer Burden

Arsenic, a known carcinogen, present in groundwater

Bihar's cancer issue is largely due to the high concentration of arsenic, a known carcinogen, in its groundwater.

Indian pollution standards peg arsenic levels beyond 50 parts per billion (ppb) as harmful.

Arsenic levels have been as high as 3,880ppb over the past 15 years in Bihar.

Studies found arsenic concentrations in Bhagalpur, Kahalgam, Pirpainti, Nathnagar, Bhojpur and Vaishali districts were unusually high.


Arsenic enters Bihar's groundwater from the Himalayas

Arsenopyrite is washed down from the Himalayas; it is found between 60-200 feet underground.

As groundwater levels gradually fell below 60 feet, arsenopyrite came in contact with air and split into arsenic and iron which entered the groundwater taken up by crops, cattle, and ultimately ingested by the people.

Apart from Bihar, UP, West Bengal and Bangladesh are affected by the contaminated water.

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Link to Cancer

Prolonged exposure to high levels of arsenic

Bihar's Tilak Rai Ka Hatta village with 5,348 people has a high arsenic concentration in groundwater; 80% of handpumps had arsenic-contaminated water.

The locals, especially children, had hyperkeratosis (hard patches) on palms and soles caused by arsenic.

About 28% of families suffer from skin-related diseases, 86% from gastritis, and 57% from male/female infertility.

Several families had very high mortality levels, mostly linked to cancer.

State's remedial action: Too little; too late

High arsenic concentrations in Bihar's Bhojpur and Shahpur were detected in 2002 and around 2007, respectively. However, remedial measures were taken only in 2011 when a Gurgaon-based company installed an arsenic filtration unit to combat contamination through multiple filters in Shahpur.

Contaminated Water

People forced to drink arsenic-contaminated water

The Gurgaon-based company ran the Shahpur unit for four years, and then the second company for 18 months; neither of the companies visited the unit once.

A third company took over later but the filters have not been replaced even once; same is the situation in the Bhagalpur unit.

Lacking other options, people in those regions are forced to drink the arsenic-contaminated, yellow water.

Arsenic levels in raw water less than 'filtered' water

Saturated Filters

Arsenic levels in raw water less than 'filtered' water

The filters are reportedly so saturated that they are "leaching arsenic".

A PHED official said filters should be replaced every eight-nine months.

He said the first two companies that won Shahpur tenders failed to meet their targets.

When officials try to penalize the companies, the issue goes to court; the companies often get stay orders.

Eventually, transferring the task to another company gets delayed.

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