Nine members of Pankaj Rai’s family have died from cancer over the past 20 years. But the 25-year-old farmer from Bihar only found out their deaths were likely a result of arsenic poisoning when his father got sick.
In 2017, Pankaj took his father, Ganesh Rai, to the Mahavir Cancer Institute & Research Centre in Patna. Ganesh had stage 4 kidney cancer. But Dr Arun Kumar, a scientist at the institute, identified the severe skin lesions on his body as signs of arsenic poisoning.
Pankaj’s sister and a number of villagers had also developed skin lesions and gastric problems but did not know why.
Kumar and his team visited the family’s home in Sabalpur village, east of Patna, where they had moved in 2000. They analysed groundwater samples and took hair samples, where arsenic can accumulate if there is long-term exposure.
In April, they published their findings. The team discovered high levels of arsenic in the groundwater – 244ug/l. The World Health Organization recommended limit is 10ug/l. Almost 90% of hair samples had above permissible levels of 0.2mg/kg. The highest arsenic level in hair was 35.5mg/kg.
They also found six people who had participated in their research had died of cancer, including Pankaj’s father.
Arsenic is listed by the WHO as one of 10 chemicals of major health concern. About 300 million people worldwide are affected by arsenic-contaminated groundwater; chief among them are those living in India and Bangladesh.
Arsenic contamination in communities across India has increased by 145% in the past five years.
Arsenic occurs naturally and can be released from soil and rocks due to the weathering process into surrounding aquifers.
Ashok Kumar Ghosh, a scientist and chair of the Bihar State Pollution Control Board, says: “Our studies have shown a direct correlation between arsenic and cancer.”
Elevated levels of arsenic in groundwater have also been associated with neurological and cardiovascular disease, and other serious health concerns.
Arsenic contamination in India was widespread in the 1990s in West Bengal and later in Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Manipur. A study in Bihar found high levels of arsenic in water samples from hand pumps installed to access groundwater for drinking.
“In the Gangetic Plain [an extensive stretch of land in the country’s central north] people are unaware they are consuming arsenic-contaminated water and falling sick,” says Kumar.
According to Ghosh, more than 1 million people have died in Bihar from arsenic-contaminated groundwater. “In 18 districts out of 38, the arsenic level is over the permissible level 10ug/l. We have recorded levels up to 760ug/l.”
Lallanji Ojha, 70, a retired farmer from Semariya Ojha Patti village, has suffered from liver cirrhosis for the past 25 years. His village was the first in Bihar to report arsenic contamination, with levels up to 1,650ug/L. “Since I have got this disease, I am not able to eat well even though I feel hungry, due to gastrointestinal problems,” he says, adding that he believes everyone in the village has some sort of digestive problem.
But a complaint filed with the National Human Rights Commission of India by the Inner Voice Foundation, a research organisation based in Uttar Pradesh, has triggered action.
Saurabh Singh, the organisation’s founder, filed the complaint after discovering that children in the district were drinking water containing high levels of arsenic after testing school pipes.
“If they are exposed to this for more than five or six years, they will be impacted. This is a big crisis brewing,” he says. Studies have found arsenic exposure can affect brain development, impair memory and intelligence in children.
In 2019, India’s rights commission directed West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to address the problem.
Bihar state government says it will set up a taskforce to prevent, detect and manage arsenic poisoning. They also launched the har ghar nal ka jal (tap water for every house) project, aiming to provide clean and safe piped water.
In West Bengal a water quality database using geographic information systems to survey sites contaminated with arsenic is being developed and awareness programmes carried out.
In 2019, the Indian government introduced the Jal Jeevan Mission, which aims to supply safe drinking water through taps to households in rural areas by 2024.
Just before the pandemic led to a national lockdown last year, Kumar’s team installed an arsenic filtration pump in Pankaj’s house in Sabalpur. Although they have not been able to go back to check the impact, Pankaj says symptoms from arsenic exposure have improved. “My younger sister’s skin lesions have reduced in the last year,” says Pankaj. “If things improve, I hope to get her married soon, and achieve my dream of becoming a successful entrepreneur.”