GEETA DEY is in her early thirties, but she looks like a woman in her mid-50s.
Bed-ridden most of the time, she spends her days in pain and misery. A victim of fluoride poisoning, Geeta needs help from others even to perform her routine chores.
She is not alone. Hundreds of others in Assam’s hill district of Karbi Anglong are suffering due to fluoride contamination from drinking water.
The effects of poisoning is clearly visible. People in their 30s look aged and withered and children barely in their teens have lost their teeth.
The tragedy, the first of its kind in the North-East, started unfolding in mid-1999 when several people in the Tekelagiun area in the district started complaining of severe anaemia, stiff joints, painful and restricted movement and brittle teeth.
A survey of 2,300 people of the area confirmed that more than 600 were suffering from dental and skeletal fluorosis, two types of fluoride poisoning.
It was found that the fluoride content in the drinking water of the area was much above the prescribed limit of 1.2 milligram per litre. “In some areas, the fluoride content was found to be even upto 23 milligrams per litre,” the study conducted by the Public Health Engineering (PHE) department states.
The study also revealed that nearly one lakh people residing in Karbi Anglong and neighbouring Nagaon district fall in the fluorosis endemic area and face the risk of getting affected. Independent studies conducted by various bodies including the Central Ground Water Board and the All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health have also corroborated the findings of the PHE study.
The study also cites reasons for excess fluoride content in the water found in Karbi Anglong. “The small alluvial plains or the still smaller ‘valley fills’ which are found in five patches in the district contains clay with intrusive granite and sedimentary rocks of ferougencous quartzite shales which are known for their high fluoride content,” the study states.
According to the study, the poisoning could not be detected early because most of the affected villages fall in hilly inaccessible areas. It states that local doctors, with no previous cases to help them, were also unable to diagnose the disease as fluorosis.
Fluorosis has no cure and can be prevented only if the disease is diagnosed at an early stage and the source of the contamination identified.
In the initial stages, the patients suffer from sporadic pain and stiffness of joints, which in the later stages leads to chronic joint pain, arthritic symptoms and calcification of ligaments.