Arsenic Field Tests May Lead to Mislabeled Wells

WASHINGTON, DC, November 25, 2002 (ENS) - Thousands of people in Bangladesh and India may be drinking arsenic contaminated water from wells that are falsely labeled safe, warn researchers from Jadavpur University in Calcutta, India. Inaccurate arsenic test kits are leading villagers to avoid safe water and drink from unsafe wells in countries where untainted water is among the most precious of commodities.


A researcher from Dhaka Community Hospital in Bangladesh demonstrates a UNICEF field test for arsenic in water. (Photo courtesy Richard Wilson, Harvard University)
The study of wells in Bangladesh and West Bengal, India, suggests the arsenic test kits used by field workers are often inaccurate, producing scores of mislabeled wells. The findings were published this month on the website of "Environmental Science & Technology," a peer reviewed journal of the American Chemical Society.

Researchers analyzed 2,866 water samples from wells that had been tested and labeled by field workers. They found that a large percentage of the wells were mislabeled, marked safe when they contained dangerous levels of arsenic, or marked as contaminated when more sensitive analyses showed them to be safe.

Shallow wells, known as tubewells, are used in Bangladesh and India to avoid the region's surface water, much of which contains bacteria that can cause waterborne diseases like cholera. Starting in the 1970s, international aid organizations dug millions of tubewells to provide bacteria free water.

But officials soon found that the tubewells were reaching groundwater containing high levels of arsenic.


Long term arsenic exposure can lead to skin lesions and keratosis, a hardening of the skin. (Photo courtesy World Bank)
Numerous studies have linked long term exposure to arsenic with several types of cancer, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The World Health Organization advocates a maximum arsenic level in water of 10 micrograms per liter - the standard recently adopted used by the EPA - but many developing countries still use a standard of 50 micrograms per liter.

By 1993, the Bangladesh Department of Public Health Engineering had reported widespread signs of arsenic poisoning, and blamed water from tubewells. Similar problems have also surfaced in other countries in the region, including India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal and Myanmar (formerly Burma).

WHO has called the region's arsenic problem the largest mass poisoning of a population in history.

In 1997, the World Bank, WHO, UNICEF and other international organizations undertook a massive project to test every tubewell in Bangladesh and the surrounding area using field kits. Many wells were labeled with paint to indicate their viability: green for safe water, containing under 50 micrograms per liter of arsenic, and red for unsafe water.

"We have been surveying in arsenic affected areas of Bangladesh since 1996," said Dr. Dipankar Chakraborti, head of the School of Environmental Studies at Jadavpur University, and lead author of the paper. A print version of the paper is scheduled for publication in the December 15 edition of "Environmental Science & Technology."


A tubewell provides drinking water for a rural school in Ranwela Colony, Sri Lanka. (Photo by G. Bizzarri, courtesy FAO)
Chakraborti and his colleagues often heard stories from villagers about mislabeled wells. One villager reportedly brought two glasses of water for testing to field workers who had labeled the wells - one glass was declared safe by the workers and the other was declared unsafe.

The villagers then proceeded to assault the workers, Chakraborti said, because both samples had been taken from the same well.

The researchers began testing tubewells themselves with a technique called flow injection hydride generation atomic absorption spectrometry (FI-HG-AAS), a fast and sensitive method performed in a laboratory setting. They found random errors in the labeling of tubewells, which led them to begin the systematic study reported in the current paper.

The team found that almost 50 percent of the wells painted red by field workers contained safe drinking water, according to their lab technique. In contrast, just 7.5 percent of the green painted wells, which had been dubbed safe, turned out to be unsafe.


A man in Bangladesh displays the arsenic lesions on his hands. (Photo courtesy CRC For Waste Management and Pollution Control Limited)
The point, the researchers emphasize, is that the field kits do not appear to provide accurate enough results for large scale testing initiatives with such important health, economic and environmental impacts.

The field kits are difficult to read with precision, the team said, and the majority of the analyses done in Bangladesh were performed before 2000, using a test kit with a minimum detection level of 100 micrograms per liter.

Chakraborti recommends using the FI-HG-AAS analysis because it not only provides more accurate readings, but also has fewer environmental impacts. The field kits require large quantities of toxic chemicals that must be disposed of, he said, but the laboratory technique uses a micro-assay technique with much less need for chemicals.

The lab technique can also be less expensive than the field kit method, Chakraborti added.

"Cost is an important consideration, but [it] requires comparison with the even higher cost of falsely labeling a well as unsafe," the researchers write. "Given the scarcity of uncontaminated water, the mislabeling of 50 [percent] of safe wells has a major socioeconomic impact."


Water pumps for irrigation and agriculture, like this one in India, may be increasing the amount of arsenic in shallow aquifers, one study suggests. (Photo by G. Bizzarri, courtesy FAO)
Another recent study suggests that drilling deeper tubewells might help avoid some of the problems of arsenic contamination. In the November 22 issue of the journal "Science," hydrologist Charles Harvey of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that water pumping for agricultural irrigation may be influencing the release of arsenic into drinking water.

Harvey and his colleagues argue that irrigation pumping draws down the levels of underground aquifers, which are then replenished by monsoon rains and other surface waters. As these surface waters percolate through the rich soil of farmlands, they carry organic carbon into the upper levels of the aquifers, where it reacts with arsenic bearing rock to release arsenic into the water.

The "Science" article suggests that drilling wells into the deeper, older waters of ancient aquifers could avoid much of this newly released arsenic and provide safer drinking water.