A large percentage of the drinking water in Pakistan is contaminated by arsenic, a toxic chemical that causes a plethora of negative health effects and that is lethal in high amounts, according to a new study released by the Science Advances Journal. The report revealed that the region most affected is the Indus valley in Eastern Pakistan, which is home to nearly 60 million people.
Previous studies had shown that certain areas of Pakistan contained arsenic-contaminated drinking water. However, this latest study demonstrates the extent of the problem, says Dr. Joel Podgorski, the lead author of the report. Tests conducted by Podgorski’s team revealed that nearly two-thirds of samples collected from wells in Pakistan contained levels of arsenic far above the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommended threshold. Podgorski called these findings “alarming.”
The scientists say that irrigation for farming may be contributing to the problem. The study revealed a strong correlation between high soil pH levels and arsenic concentrations. “There is massive irrigation in the Indus valley, it’s a very hot and dry climate,” said Podgorski. “If you have a lot of water flooding the surface that is going to percolate down to the aquifer, that would be an easy way of bringing any released arsenic down to the groundwater.”
Podgorki’s team also created a risk map of arsenic levels for the region, using the tests that they had conducted earlier to predict the number of individuals affected. Global health experts say that the map will be exceedingly useful for moving policy discussion forward and for educating people about the crisis.
“[The study] is a reminder that arsenic remains a serious public health threat in drinking water,” says Richard Johnston, a public health engineer at WHO in Geneva, Switzerland.
The need to address water contamination in poorer countries is underscored by years of public health problems relating to arsenic, many of which stem from a project several decades ago to bring cleaner water to Bangladesh. In the 1970s, the UN spearheaded an international effort to build tube wells in the populous South Asian country. The goal of the project was to improve water quality and combat diarrhea, one of the leading killers of children in less developed regions. Instead, the project resulted in what the WHO called “the largest mass poisoning of a population in history.” While scientists at the time had checked the wells for some contaminants, they failed to check for arsenic, which proved to be a fatal mistake that affected millions of Bangladeshis.
According to a study published in The Lancet by a team of University of Chicago scientists, half of the population of Bangladesh, nearly 77 million people, may have been exposed to dangerous levels of arsenic. The scientists studied a sample group of 12,000 Bangladeshis over 10 years and found that over 20% of deaths were caused by arsenic.
The horrible repercussions of contaminated water extend far beyond these two South Asian countries. Over 70 countries around the world have problems with arsenic-contaminated groundwater, including more developed and financially secure nations such as the United States. The US Environmental Protection Agency released a study revealing that people in California and the Midwest had been exposed to water with dangerously high concentrations of arsenic.
It goes to show that environmentalism and water safety are not region-specific issues, only affecting individuals in distant, “third world” countries. These are problems that concern the health and security of our entire planet. The latest study about Pakistan’s drinking water should serve as a signal to key international leaders and policymakers to give this issue the attention that it deserves.
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