About 203 districts in 20 states of the country are affected with fluoride contamination. Around 66.62 million people in these states (six million children below the age of 14) live under this ominous shadow
From time immemorial, Ganga enters Bihar at Chosa (Buxar), flowing through villages of 12 districts and 52 blocks, defining two distinct regions of north and south Bihar. It has been a life-giving source of drinking water and irrigation, sustaining livelihoods of millions along its 400 km terrain.
Over the years, the picture has turned ugly. Gangajal, once considered a blessing, is proving to be a deadly curse. This is due to the presence of arsenic beyond acceptable levels. According to experts, quantity of arsenic in Haldichapra village along the banks of Ganga is 1.8 mg/l – way beyond the 0.010 mg/l set by WHO. In another study, the ground water tested at Bidupur, Vaishali district, showed arsenic levels up to a staggering 7.5 mg/l. This was in villages within a radius of 5 km of the river. That is, the quantity of arsenic in the food chain of people inhabiting the environs of the Ganga is 50-fold more: dangerous and life-threatening.
The level of arsenic decreases with the depth of the water table. Till 60 metres, the level of arsenic is high which reduces till 200 metres below the ground level and is found in negligible quantities at the level of 220 metres. Negligible but not absent.
Arsenic is a natural element found in minerals and rocks inside the earth. In rocks, it takes the form of a carbonic material which get deposited at the bottom of the river bed through mud brought in by soil erosion. Microbes present in muddied depths of the river bed create arsenate compounds soluble in water. This water contaminated with arsenic is used for agriculture thus finding its way into the food cycles and eventually being deposited in the bodies of human beings. It leads to various kinds of cancer including skin changes. Cancer has become an epidemic in India, including in rural India, mostly among women.
Arsenic is not the only element which threatens the health of millions along Gangetic plains. In 11 districts of Bihar adjacent to Jharkhand, the waters have high fluoride content. In northeast Bihar, the iron content is unacceptably high in vast water sources dotting the land.
Thirty eight districts of Bihar, with around one crore [10 million] population living in 24 districts, are inadvertently consuming this lethal mix of one or all of the elements. And, it is taking its toll. In vast tracts in Bihar, the prevalence of physical deformity is a chilling evidence of excessive fluoride. Those suffering from fluorosis complain of fatigue and typically the bones of the backbone, neck, hands or legs of the affected person become fragile and lead to deformity. It becomes difficult to stand, run, walk or carry a load.
Dental fluorosis is prevalent in children from eight-nine years onwards when permanent teeth are formed. The disease attacks healthy teeth. It is also found in adults leading to pain in the gums, weakening and untimely loss of teeth.
While the prevalence of this assortment of poison is widespread, the effects become visible in extreme cases or when the damage has already been done. Khaira village, Kharakpur Haveli block of Munger district, Bhupnagar village, Aamas block in Gaya district and Ismailpur Tola Chunavpur of Churi village panchayat in Gaya are all badly affected. Here, young children are developing deformities in hands and legs. The quantity of fluoride in water sources of Kachariadeeh Muslim tola has been found to be 2 ppm to 7 ppm, (parts per million), far higher than the surrounding villages. The number of people suffering from bone and dental fluorisis is the largest here.
About 203 districts in 20 states of the country are affected with fluoride including Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Jammu & Kashmir, Rajasthan and West Bengal. About 66.62 million people in these states (6 million children below 14 years) live under this ominous shadow.
What is perhaps equally chilling is the sheer callousness displayed by authorities. The effects of excessive fluoride in groundwater first came to notice as dental and bone diseases in cattle in Nellore district in Andhra Pradesh in 1930. It has been nearly eight decades since and we have not been able to find a solution.
Experts now say that the water of the Ganges basin has been polluted during the last 200 years. We have added to the problem by going ahead mindlessly on a development path which is dependent on excessive use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, toxins and industrial effluents, and human waste and sewage, all of which inevitably find their way into our rivers, and consequently in the drinking water and food cycle.