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Feature Safe drinking water

Arsenic: the largest mass poisoning of a population in history

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 05 June 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f3625
  1. Parijat Sen, medical graduate, research associate, DNGM Research Foundation, Kolkata, India,
  2. Tamoghna Biswas, medical graduate, independent researcher, Kolkata, India
  1. parijatsenstation{at}

Millions of Indians are exposed to natural arsenic contamination in drinking water, leading to an array of health problems. But is the government doing enough, ask Parijat Sen and Tamoghna Biswas

Access to safe drinking water was one of the first millennium development goals to be met.1 However, the quality and safety of drinking water in several regions of the world is a concern, with millions of people at risk from groundwater arsenic contamination, described by researchers as the “largest mass poisoning of a population in history.”2

Arsenic is on the World Health Organization’s 10 chemicals of major public health concern. Arsenic poisoning from natural sources is not a new phenomenon.3 4 The prevalence of confirmed chronic arsenic toxicity is alarmingly high, and new areas with high ground arsenic concentrations are being discovered, but the response has been subdued.

Magnitude of the problem

Since the first reports of chronic arsenic poisoning as a result of groundwater contamination emerged from West Bengal in 1983-845 6 the problem has affected millions of Indians in several states. West Bengal, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and Manipur have reported groundwater contamination greater than 10 μg/L, the limit permitted by WHO.

“In the absence of any cogent public health measures to mitigate the problem, arsenic contamination is a potential major public health problem,” Chandrakant S Pandav, head of the Centre for Community Medicine at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, told the BMJ.

“Studies have reported 32-45% of the water samples to have arsenic content more than 10 µg/L and 13-27% of the water samples with arsenic content more than 50 µg/L in these states.”

A 2009 press release from the union government reported that 16 654 million people in 79 blocks in eight districts of West Bengal are …

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