Study suspects gold mines to be the culprit
H MUMTAZ knows something is wrong with Wandali village in Karnataka's Raichur district, but she cannot put her finger to it. "I feel unwell here but I am fine back home in Chitradurga," said the nurse at the primary health sub-centre at Wandali in Deodurg taluka. She has seen several patients, young and old, complaining of joint pain or skin ailments. The Department of Mines and Geology probably has an explanation. It has found high levels of arsenic, a carcinogen, in the village well--27 times the permissible level.
A groundwater study by unicef, rural development and panchayati raj department and the mines and geology department, completed in May this year, found arsenic in several villages of Raichur. This is the first time arsenic contamination has been detected in south India. Arsenic in groundwater is prevalent in parts of Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal in India, and in neighbouring Bangladesh.
The most common signs of arsenic poisoning are blisters on palms and soles that turn gangrenous and cancerous. Anemia and hyperkeratosis, or thickening of the skin, are other signs. Arsenic also affects the lungs, kidneys and the liver.
The majority of the villages surveyed were in the Hutti-Maski schist belt. (Schist is metamorphic rock having laminated, flaky parallel layers of micaceous minerals.) Rocks in the area contain arsenic-rich minerals like arseno pyrite. The report points to the three active gold mines in the region as the probable source of contamination. Excavation and crushing of rocks in mines aggravate weathering of rocks and their dissolution, leading to contamination of aquifers (see box). Hutti Gold Mines operates all the three mines in Hutti, Hira-Buddini and Uti villages.
The rural development and panchayati raj department has asked for all the contaminated sources to be sealed. A visit to Raichur, however, revealed that without alternative sources villagers were drinking from the contaminated wells and borewells, as in Wandali that is within 10 km of the Hutti and Uti gold mines.
Every family in the village has complaints of joint pain and skin ailments. "I have terrible pain in my joints. I can't sit or stand for long," said 50-year-old Mahaballeshwar R. Even the youth in the village complain of joint pain.
The taluka health officers of Sindhnur, Lingsugur, Deodurg and Manvi report symptoms of fluorosis but not of arsenic. Two borewells in Sindhnur's Balagnur village where arsenic had been detected were sealed. Balagnur is about 50 km from the Hutti gold mines. Physician Jeenneshwariah S, who practises in the village, said the incidence of gastritis was high in the area and many people complained of itching.
Water samples from Nagaldinni village in Manvi had 0.668 ppm (parts per million) arsenic against permissible 0.01 ppm. Maski town of 30,000 people in Lingsugur has a high incidence of joint pain and dental fluorosis. The zilla panchayat had declared water in several borewells unfit for drinking, but they are still in use. Water samples in Maski showed 0.139 ppm of arsenic, according to the Department of Mines and Geology's report. The villagers also complain of high pesticide content in the canal water.
In Buddini village in the same taluka only one of the four borewells can be used and joint pain is a common complaint in the 200 homes.
Closer to Raichur city at the Udumgal Khanapur primary health centre skin diseases are common among villagers. "People come with itching, scabies, urticaria and pain in the body," said Jyothi Maski, a nurse.
Uchappa C of Ooti, Deodurg, complained, "The water turns black. I have frequent stomach ache and dysentery. " But people like him have no alternative but to drink it.