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Arsenic Poisoning in the Northeast

By Ibu Sanjeeb Garg

Beating the Rhetoric

Arsenic poisoning is a relatively new phenomenon that is being witnessed in the past few decades. However, within this short span of time it has morphed into one of the biggest challenges towards the goal of providing safe drinking water for all.The South Asian region is one of the biggest sufferers of arsenic poisioning of water with the Ganga- Brahmpautra alluvial plains in India and the Padma aluvial plain in Bangladesh being the biggest victims.Assam and Manipur are suffering from the scourge of arsenic poisoning the most in the Northeast.

Arsenic is an odourless and tasteless metaloid that is widely distributed over the Earth’s crust.It can combine with other elements to exist in a variety of forms in the Earth’s surface and is the twenty sixth most abundant element on the earth. Due to its existence in the anthropogenic forms arsenic can enter the human body easily through food and through water contamination. Arsenic in drinking water enters the bloodstream and then travels to differnt organs of the human body. If the arsenic intake is small the body can naturally get rid of the same through urine, however the problem is that once arsenic enters the body in large quantity it starts to accumulate in the body.

Arsenic accumulation in the body in large quantities has the nomenclature of  Arsenicosis. Arsenicosis leads to inhibition of important enzymes that are produced by the human body often resulting in multi-organ failure. However what makes arsenic poisioining more worrisome is the fact that the complete adverse effects have not been completely identified yet. Arsenic poisoning also leads to skin damage including keratosis and skin cancer, internal cancers such as that of the lung and bladder, and diseases of the vascular system. Further other health problems, such as diabetes, cancers of the other organs and adverse effects on the reproductive organs and outcomes have been observed, but the evidence is not yet conclusive, although it has kept on steadily increasing.

The people of Northeast india solely depend on naturally ocurring water sources which increases their chance of falling prey to arsenic poisoning.The first evidence of it in Northeast was found in Assam in 2004 when government officials flagged the issue that arsenic poisioning had indeed made an entry in the Northeast. In Assam since then Jorhat, Dhemaji and Lakhimpur districts have fallen prey to this menace including the world famous heritage site of Majuli, which has recently been declared a district in itself.In 2007, arsenic poisoning was also reported from Thuobal block in Manipur. In recent times however this has further spread to Nagaland in Mokokchung, Mon and a few other districts; in Arunachal Pradesh in Dibang,West Kameng, East Kameng,Tirap and Lower Subhanshiri districts and in North Tripura. While there are no evidences of arsenic poisoning in other states yet, it is however only a matter of time before the scourge perhaps spreads.

The state government of these states have woken up to the challenge and are now engaged in a number of steps towards combating the scourge of arsenic poisoning. Yet it poses its own challenges. One of the most basic steps to remove a number of water contaminants is boiling. However, boiling has no effect on Arsenic poisniong. And this is what makes combating arsenic poisniong difficult at the grassroots level unless it’s a government backed common system. Arsenic removal plants or ARP are often the first and strongest line of defence against arsenic poisoning. These are three step plants through which groundwater first enters this system and its treated and then the water released for public consumption. While this method has proved effective towards combating arsenic posiniong yet the sclability of such plants pose a serious challenge. While ARPs have demonstarted success in combating arsenic poisoning yet the scales of the plants have to be increased. Also more information about this must be spread among the public so that they become aware of the problem and are able to identify the symptoms. This will save valuable time in treating the disease.

Further new steps must be thought of to combat arsenic poisoning. Arsenic poisoning poses a serious threat and all steps must be taken towards eradicating the same.

 ( The views expressed by the author are personal)

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