Toxic spread

Arsenic contamination detected in Lucknow

Published: Saturday 31 August 2002

A controversy seems to be brewing up in Lucknow, with the reporting of high levels of arsenic contamination in many parts of the city and government officials denying the same. Tests carried out by Environmental Research Laboratory (erl), a Lucknow-based non-governmental organisation, has shown that groundwater in many areas of the city has arsenic content as high as 10,000 parts per billion (ppb) -- much higher than the 10 ppb limit prescribed by the World Health Organisation. This is for the first time that the presence of the toxic substance has been reported in Uttar Pradesh.

The tests were conducted by erl during a routine survey of water quality in the state carried out by the Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam. Three organisations, including erl, were commissioned to measure the levels of fluoride, nitrate, total dissolved solids, iron and arsenic in the groundwater. Water samples were taken from hand pumps of Lucknow and 30 districts located nearby to the city. According to erl, samples collected from different areas in Lucknow had arsenic concentration varying between 10-10,000 ppb. Similarly, Unnao district had arsenic levels ranging from 10-6,000 ppb while Jaunpur district had between 10-700 ppb.

However, tests carried out by Industrial Toxicology Research Centre and Remote Sensing Application Centre, the other two other institutes commissioned by Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam, did not find any traces of arsenic in the areas allotted to them. Both the institutes are run by the government. Government officials allege that erl's measurement techniques are not correct. "Arsenic has never been reported in the area. It is not likely to be there now. We have cross checked the results in 50 locations of Lucknow, but found that the levels were within the prescribed limits. The levels were below 10 ppb in all the samples we tested," says B N Singh, a superintendent engineer (rural), Uttar Pradesh Jal Board.

M C Saxena, director of erl, feels that the government is deliberately trying to suppress the results because the contamination might be a result of the activities of the industry. Dipankar Chakraborti, an expert on arsenic and director of the School of Environmental Studies at the Kolkata-based Jadavpur University, says that it is possible for the area to be contaminated by arsenic. The controversy is likely to be resolved soon, as experts plan to check the amount of arsenic in the water along with looking for visible symptoms for the contamination, such as skin lesions in the people living in the area.

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