Arsenic update

Partly because of natural processes and partly due to a shift to avoid pathogens in surface water used for domestic to a massive well-drilling programme much of rural Bangladesh and neighbouring West Bengal in India found itself the epicentre of ‘the largest mass poisoning of a population in history’, during the 1990s. The agent was soluble arsenic in various forms that reducing conditions in shallow aquifers had released by dissolving its host mineral, iron hydroxide coatings on sand grains. Geological and hydrological attributes of the two hard-hit areas helped develop a model for assessing the risks in other areas. More than a decade on from the world-wide recognition of the tragedy (local geoscientists had their suspicions much earlier) a review of arsenic hazard in both South and Southeast Asia (Fendorf, S. et al. 2010. Spatial and temporal variations of groundwater arsenic in south and south-east Asia. Science, v. 328, p. 1123-1127) is welcome but is not reassuring. The problem now extends to plains of the whole of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna system, the Red River of Vietnam and the Mekong of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and part of Thailand. Almost certainly the Indus and Irrawaddy plains are affected too, though few data are available. The review highlights a haphazard aspect of the distribution of affected wells, both in geographic location and the depth of the tapped aquifer. In the latter case, it was thought that deeper aquifers were less prone to contamination than those in the top 100 m of wells. It turns out that even at depth up to a third of wells exceed WHO recommended levels of arsenic. The positive feature is that many villagers are within walking distance of safe well water. But it is difficult to predict whether or not new wells will be risky, and little is know about safe well’s propensity to become contaminated by groundwater flow from elsewhere. Two clear messages are, first to refine methods of testing and assessing hydrogeological conditions, second to move from hand drawn water from individual wells to provision of piper water from high-yielding safe wells.

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