Yet another risk of arsenic exposure

The most widely feared risk of poisoning through natural causes, which grossly disfigures and kills through a range of cancers, is from chronic exposure to arsenic in drinking water. Tragically, the risk is highest from what has traditionally been considered safest source, groundwater. That was the gruesome lesson of a massive transfer in Bangladesh from drinking surface water containing organic pathogens to reliance on well waters. The greatest mass poisoning in history was eventually traced to shallow aquifers in the Ganges-Brahmaputra plains that were rich in organic matter. Their reducing chemistry broke down iron hydroxide coatings on sedimentary grains. Since these minerals are among the most accommodating adsorbers of ions from the environment, including a variety of arsenic-bearing ions, their dissolution releases potential poisons from otherwise safe storage. In Bangladesh and neighbouring West Bengal in India it was found that deeper aquifers have oxidising chemistry and so the iron minerals not only hold ionic pollutants fast by adsorption but help to extract them from groundwater. Deep wells together with various kinds of treatment of shallow groundwater, some using the very iron minerals whose breakdown caused the pollution, are helping to mitigate the perilous situation for people of South Asia.

Skin lesions from arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh
Skin lesions (keratoses) from arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh (Photo credit: waterdotorg)

Much the same kind of arsenic pollution has subsequently been revealed in groundwaters of lowland Vietnam and Cambodia. Yet the turn there to deep groundwater has revealed a new twist. That too is yielding increasingly high arsenic concentrations, but for a different reason (Erband, L.E. et al. 2013. Release of arsenic to deep groundwater in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam, linked to pumping-induced land subsidence. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, doi/10.1073/pnas.1300503110). Scientists from Stanford University, California analysed waters from around 900 wells in the Lower Mekong Delta and found several tracts with arsenic contents well above levels deemed safe by the WHO. Some, as could be anticipated from South Asian studies, were from shallow wells along the present course of the Mekong. However, in the delta area to the southwest of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is a large cluster from wells 150 to 450 m deep, totally unlike the situation in other areas of thick Pliocene to Recent river sedimentation.

Comparing the distribution of affected wells with precise estimates of the subsidence rates of the land surface from orbital interferometric radar surveys shows a close correlation of arsenic contamination with rates of subsidence. This suggests that groundwater pumping from deep aquifers is causing compaction at depth, in much the same way as in the environs of Venice. But is this somehow drawing in arsenic polluted water from higher levels? It seems not. So the pollution seems most likely to be an effect of pumping itself. The authors suggest that most of the subsidence is due to compaction of clay-rich sediments rather than the sandy aquifers, well known by engineers to resist compression. They explain the increasing arsenic concentrations by the introduction into the aquifers of water expelled from the clays, either containing arsenic ions in solution or carrying organic compounds that create the reducing conditions to break down iron hydroxide grain coatings and release ions adsorbed on their surfaces.

This presents another grim prospect for South Asian people forced to make the choice between drinking polluted surface water and enteric disease and increasingly exploited deep groundwaters that seem to be safe as well as in very high volumes. Let’s hope that arsenic monitoring can be maintained in the Ganges-Brahmaputra plains in the long term.

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