Cancer has exploded in Bihar as lakhs of people drink water poisoned with arsenic -M Rajshekhar
Arsenic levels in water have been as high as 3,880 parts per billion in parts of the state. Pollution standards cite 50 parts per billion as harmful.
It is a day like any other at Mahavir Cancer Sansthan.
The driveway is lined with people who have travelled a long way to get to this charitable hospital in Patna. Families sit huddled, holding their bags close. The lobby is even more crowded, rather like the ticket buying hall of a train station.
The hospital gets between 60 and 100 patients every day – a substantial number for a 400-bed hospital. Ashok Ghosh, who heads research at the hospital, said that the load is such that “surgery has a two-month waiting list even though the disease might become inoperable by then”.
On the morning this reporter met him, Ghosh made a wry comment about the rush, asking: “When you entered this hospital, did this look like a cancer hospital or a general hospital?”
One reason this hospital is receiving so many patients is the dismal state of public healthcare in Bihar. Government hospitals are understaffed and poorly equipped. While the state has seen a jump in the number of private hospitals, most of them are too expensive for middle income and poor families in the state. Most of them, Ghosh said, end up coming to Mahavir Cancer Sansthan.
But lack of affordable care is not the only reason. Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai, one of the best cancer treatment facilities in India, gets about 25,000 patients every year from around the country. In contrast, Mahavir Cancer Sansthan gets nearly as many at about 22,000 patients last year despite drawing patients from just Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Nepal. Many of these patients suffer from cancers of the gall bladder or liver, both which are associated with arsenic toxicity.
Bihar’s arsenic problem
Bihar’s heavy cancer burden is largely due to high levels of arsenic, a known carcinogen, in its groundwater. Pollution standards in India peg arsenic concentrations above 50 parts per billion as harmful. This is higher than the permissible limit of 10 parts per billion of arsenic in drinking water set by the United States.
Over the last 15 years, field studies in Bihar have thrown up arsenic concentrations that are far higher – up to 3,880 parts per billion.
Sunil Kumar, a professor at the agriculture university in Bihar’s Sabour block, studied arsenic levels in 16 blocks of Bhagalpur district. He found safe levels in just three blocks. Levels in other blocks were 3,880 parts per billion in Kahalgam, 3,610 parts per billion in Pirpainti and 3,500 parts per billion in Nathnagar.
Nupur Bose, a professor at Patna’s AN College, found arsenic levels as high as 1,861 parts per billion and 500 parts per billion in Bhojpur and Vaishali districts.
Arsenic has entered Bihar’s drinking water from the Himalayas, washed down in the form of arsenopyrite, a conjugate of arsenic and iron, till it settled in riverbeds along the Gangetic plain as silt. When the rivers changed course, human settlements sprung up on the floodplains. People in such settlements in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh,West Bengal and Bangladesh, used river water for drinking and irrigation.
In 1970s, concerned over the high levels of bacterial contamination in river water that was leading to the spread of diseases like diarrhoea, international health organisations advocated a shift to the use of groundwater pumped by borewells. The recommendation had unforeseen and expensive consequences. Arsenopyrite, found between 60 feet and 200 feet underground, is stable as long as it is insulated from air. But, as Ghosh explained, as groundwater levels fell below 60 feet, this underground arsenopyrite came in contact with air and split into the ionic forms of arsenic and iron both which easily enter water and are taken up by cattle and locally-grown crops and ultimately ingested by humans.
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