Death by slow poisoning -Priyanka Pulla
An estimated 10 million people in nine districts of West Bengal drink arsenic-laden groundwater. Priyanka Pulla finds that despite alarms having been sounded over decades, the State government has moved at a glacial pace to tackle the crisis, while people struggle to cope with the symptoms
On a Thursday morning at the government primary school in Madhusudankati, a village in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district, a gaggle of five-year-olds chatter animatedly in a classroom. A teacher walks in. They stand up and chant “Good morning, teacher” in a high-pitched sing-song. There is momentary quiet, and the rustle of textbooks being opened, but the giggling and chattering return soon. It’s a school scene that is as ordinary as it gets, but behind its normalcy lies a disturbing fact: the bodies of these children contain alarming levels of arsenic — a poisonous metalloid that sickens and kills with chronic exposure. Unlike the adults in Madhusudankati though, the children don’t show any symptoms yet.
Madhusudankati is a lush green agricultural village about 14 km from the border with Bangladesh and deep inside India’s arsenic territory. About 15 years ago, scientists discovered that the shallow groundwater here had high levels of the mineral: up to 1,000 micrograms (mcg) per litre in places. The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) prescribed safe level is 10 mcg per litre. When such water is consumed for years, either directly or through the food chain, the mineral damages organs like the skin, kidneys and lungs.
The most visible symptom in early years is a classic blotchy pattern on the skin, a condition called raindrop pigmentation. If people showing such pigmentation don’t switch to safer water, they develop hyperkeratosis — dark crusts on their palms and soles, which can get infected and make it painful to work. Eventually, the skin can turn cancerous. Simultaneously, arsenic can destroy the kidneys and liver tissue, cause conjunctivitis and affect the lungs, just as heavy smoking does. There are few organs that arsenic spares.
Today, an estimated 10 million people in nine districts in West Bengal drink arsenic-laden groundwater. It is the worst worldwide case of mass poisoning alongside Bangladesh, which has 40 million people at risk. When West Bengal’s problem first attracted international attention in 1995, a researcher from the University of Colorado compared its scale with the Chernobyl disaster. Today, we know it is worse. But despite the grave warnings from international bodies like the WHO, the West Bengal government has moved excruciatingly slowly to tackle the crisis. A critical shortcoming in its efforts was the delay in realising that mitigation is a sociological challenge, not just a technological one. This is why, even though multiple technologies to filter arsenic from groundwater are there, awareness of arsenic’s ill-effects remains low. So, people continue drinking toxic water, even when alternatives exist.
Madhusudankati is an example of this. In 2013, a farmer’s cooperative society, the Madhusudankati Samabay Krishi Unnayan Samity (MSKUS), installed a water treatment plant in the village with help from the Sulabh International Social Service Organisation. Today, the plant supplies treated water from a local pond to 500 families and the primary school. However, studies show that despite the availability of MSKUS water, several people continue drinking contaminated groundwater.
In August 2017, a team led by Tarit Roychowdhury, an Associate Professor at the School of Environmental Studies (SOES) in Kolkata’s Jadavpur University, collected urine, nail and hair samples from the children in Madhusudankati’s primary school. By then, the school had stopped using water from its contaminated tube well for drinking and cooking midday meals, switching to MSKUS water instead. Several village families had done the same.
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