Arsenic poisoning in India

Arsenic poisoning on the Indian sub-continent has been the worst, and most insidious environmental disaster we have ever witnessed, but very few people know about the problem of the hellish water that is poisoning hundreds of thousands if not millions of people. I have periodically written about the issue since 1995, having first made contact with the leader in the field Dipankar Chakraborti of Jadavpur University, and brought the problem to at least the attention of readership of The Guardian at the time.

It is always of interest to hear about new developments, new research into understanding the problem, how it might be abated, water filters etc. Unfortunately, nothing has yet solved the crisis. Most recently, I wrote about work published in Nature Geosciences that seems to suggest that subterranean sediments might somehow ameliorate the problem of soluble arsenice leaching into the groundwater. However, Chakraborti tells me that the subterranean landscape is far to heterogeneous for there to be a simple model that would apply to the whole region and allow definitive predictions to be made. You can read about this latest work in a short news article I put together for Chemistry World magazine.

Not surprisingly, there are apparent contradictions in the report that simply cannot be avoided given the complexity of this environmental disaster. The team in the Nature Geo paper claim one thing but Chakraborti who has been researching this for the best part of three decades says the situation is not at all clearcut, it depends on where you sample, when (pre or post irrigation/monsoon), how you sample and what type of well you’re looking at. Couple that to the fact that local bureaucracy and governments in this region have for years at turns, ignored, obfuscated, and worsened the problem through inefficiencies and political wranglings leading to mistake after mistake, then one thing that is clear, is that the problem is not going to be resolved any time soon, sadly. Much of the Western science that has recently been applied to the problem is either misguided or simply does not transfer to this part of the world with its intrinsic socio-economic problems.

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