Fluoride Action Network

Fluoride in water takes its toll in Assam

Source: Kerala next | June 23rd, 2004
Location: India

Guwahati, It is colourless, odourless and is wreaking havoc on hundreds of thousands of people in Assam.

Like 46-year-old Gita Deb of Tekelangjun village in Karbi Anglong district for whom life is an endless odyssey of pain. She’s been bedridden for seven years, wracked by perennial body pain after she contracted skeletal fluorosis, a water-borne disease caused by excess fluoride in drinking water.

Her son, a Class 6 student, is already showing signs of dental fluorosis, reports Grassroots Feature Network.

Gita’s husband has been left to look after his ailing family, helpless in the face of the painful disease that creeps in through drinking water.

There are many families like the Debs in India’s northeastern state of Assam. Around 200,000 people, at least half of them women, are in the grip of hydrofluorosis.

In Karbi Anglong itself and in neighbouring Naogaon and Kamrup districts, hundreds of villages are said to be prone to excess fluoride.

According to statistics, more than six million children suffer from fluorosis. Of these, at least 25,000 are in Assam.

Known for its scenic beauty, Karbi Anglong was included in the fluoride-affected map of India four years ago. One-seventh of its 700,000 people suffer from either dental or skeletal fluorosis.

The first fluorosis case in the state was detected in 1999 in Tekelangjun area where fluoride levels were found to be as high as 5 to 23 mg per litre, whereas the permissible limit according to WHO is only 1.5 mg per litre.

Unfortunately, fluorosis has no cure. The only way out is prevention at an early stage. Initial symptoms are sporadic pain and stiffness of joints, which escalates into chronic joint pain, arthritis and calcification of ligaments.

Fluoride can enter the human body through food, toothpaste, mouth rinses and, of course, more swiftly through drinking water. A colourless and odourless natural pollutant, fluoride comes in contact with the groundwater via erosion of fluoride bearing rock minerals.

Most fluoride compounds found in the earth’s upper crust are soluble in water.

Ironically, government-sponsored schemes to provide drinking water to villages have unwittingly been causative factors.

According to Lonki Teron, a village chief in Lungnit Bazar, people collected potable water from the nearby Lungnit river until the government water supply scheme was launched in the early 1990s. The scheme was abandoned in 1999 following reports of fluoride contamination.

Now villagers there collect water from a low depth well.

To prevent a fluorosis disaster, it is imperative that safe water supply is made available with emphasis on surface water sources. Rainwater harvesting is potentially an effective and cheap method of storing clean drinking water.

Unicef and local NGOs have got into the act and have launched health awareness drives in some affected areas.

The disease is endemic in at least 20 states in India, including Uttaranchal, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.