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31 9, 2006

Arsenic Pollution in West Bengal

D. Elangovan1 & M. L. Chalakh2

1.1 Historically arsenic is known as a poison. It does 2. Extent of problem in West Bengal
not often present in its elemental state but is more
In West Bengal, during 1980s, some cases of arsenical
common in sulfides and sulfosalts such as Arsenopyrite,
dermatosis in the districts of North 24 Parganas, South
Orpiment, Realgar, Lollingite and Tennantite. Due to
24 Parganas, Nadia, Murshidabad and Burdwan were
abundance of these arsenic bearing ores and the rarity
reported. By the end of December 2001, this problem
of native arsenic, it is not an important ore itself.
spreads from few villages to 2065 villages of 75 blocks
Arsenic is used in industry as a wood preservatives
in 8 districts. About 10 % of the total population of
and in paints, dyes, metals, soaps, insecticides and
the State is exposed to the above risk. It can be
semi-conductors. Apart from its natural occurrence it
observed from the map below that there is increase
is also released into the environment through burning
in number of incidences with the time.
fossil fuels, paper production, cement manufacturing
and mining activities. The details of the extent of the problem (as on
December 2001)in West Bengal are given below.
1.2 Arsenic (AS) exists in several forms, which vary
in toxicity and occurrence.
The metallic form of arsenic (0 valency) is not
absorbed by the stomach and intestines and does not
exert adverse effects. On the other hand, a volatile
compound such as AsH3 is toxic, but is not present in
water or food. Moreover, the primary organic forms
(arsenobetanine and arsenocholine) found in fish and
shellfish seem to have little or no toxicity.
Arsenobetanine quickly passes out of the body Identified upto
May 1993.
through urine without being metabolized to other Further identified upto
compounds. Arsenite (+3) and arsenate (+5) are the September 1995.
Further identified upto
most prevalent toxic forms of inorganic arsenic that December 1995.
are found in drinking water. Arsenite As(+3) in Further identified upto
December 2000.
reduced state in inorganic is a toxic pollutant in natural
Further identified upto
environment and is more soluble and mobile than the December 2001.

oxidised state of inorganic arsenic, arsenate As(+5).

1.3 Intake of drinking water having arsenic According to the studies so far made, the cause of
concentration beyond the permissible limit of 0.05 mg/ arsenic pollution of ground water in West Bengal has
lit has deleterious effects on human health viz., been attributed to the hydrolithological phenomena.
cardiovascular (heart failure) problem, gastrointestinal Sr. District No. of No. of Population at
(burning lips, painful swallowing, thirst, nausea, and No. blocks villages the village
severe abdominal colic), hematological effects affected

(anemia and leucopoenia), hepatic effects, renal 1 Malda 7 229 696822

effects, neurological 2 Murshidabad 18 354 1343866
effects (headache, lethargy, 3 Nadia 17 541 1743889
mental confusion, 4 North 24 Parganas 19 472 1884676
hallucination, seizures and 5 South 24 Parganas 9 409 964431
coma), dermal effects (skin 6 Howrah 2 4 107951
disorder, hyperkeratosis), 7 Hooghly 1 18 37678
carcinogenic effects ( lung 8 Bardhaman 2 38 101171
Carcinoma cancer) etc. Total 75 2065 6970484

General Manager, HO, NABARD
Assistant Manager, West Bengal RO, NABARD
ISSUE 9, 2006 For Private circulation only 32

3. Source of arsenic in groundwater sources several times during the epoch valley
alluviation. These changes left irregularities on the
3.1 The source of arsenic in groundwater can be
alluvial plain, which controlled hydrographic pattern
traced out by establishing the relations between the
and created environments in which the sediments
river system (drainage pattern), the area from where
were deposited.
the rivers brought sediments i.s. parent materials. In
this regard Geological Survey of India and Central With the beginning of the Himalayan orogeny crustal
Ground Water Board have done commendable job down wrapping along the northern margin of the
and come out with certain findings. peninsula and south of the newly formed mountain
3.2 The problem of groundwater pollution by arsenic ranges gave rise to a basin in the nature of a foredeep
is found in the interfluvial region of the Bhagirathi- where concomitantly with the formation of the
Hugli and the Jalangi-Ichamati rivers lying mostly in mountain range extensive sedimentation took place.
the eastern part of the Bhagirathi-Hugli river of West By middle Tertiary times the South Bengal basin was
Bengal. The arsenic contamination in ground water mainly getting sediments from Eastern part of the
beyond permissible limit of 0.05mg/l has been found Peninsula comprising the Chotanagpur and the
within the shallow aquifer (20-60m below ground Assam Plateau. In he Tertiary period the sediments
level). Apart from this area, other areas where higher brought down from Chotanagpur plateau including
incidence of Arsenic has been reported are four blocks Rajmahal hill area by Ajoy-Damodar system of rivers
(adjacent to the river Ganga) in Malda district, played the most important role in filling up the
Purbasthali block of Bardhaman district and Balagarh western margin of the Bengal basin. By the end of
block of Hugli district. the Mid-Tertiary period the major uplifts of the
Chotanagpur Plateau were over and the later
3.3 During the phases of deltaic sedimentation in the movements were of much reduced magnitude. As a
southeastern part of West Bengal, rest of the Bengal result, the rate of sedimentation during the Tertiary
shelf was under the influence of fresh water period was considerably reduced. The formation of
sedimentation. The system of rivers responsible for Garo-Rajmahal gap in the Pleistocene completely
this fresh water sedimentation could be the precursor changed the picture of sedimentation in the Bengal
of the Ganga, which might have been flowing into basin. A tremendous rate of growth started in south
the Bengal plains through the Garo-Rajmahal gap. Bengal as a result sediments of northern rivers
A number of rivers like the Damodar, the Rupnarayan getting deposited there.
etc. flowing in the Bengal plains in a southeasterly
direction for a considerable distance turn sharply to The source of sediments deposited within last 2000
the south in the southern part of West Bengal. Thus years could be from northern Himalayan provinces,
the present drainage pattern responsible for sub- metamorphic terrain of the Chotanagpur plateau the
recent to recent sedimentation in West Bengal might meta-sedimentary rocks of Eastern Himalaya. In
have been caused due to 1) a regional southeasterly eastern Himalayan foothills, the existences of
slope of the basin, caused to some extent, by Arsenopyrite Veins were reported at the altitude 1200
movements on the hinge-zone located at the edge of m above mean sea level. The Tista, Torsa and other
the shelf and 2) an increasing rate of southerly tilt of tributaries of the Brahmaputra river have cut across
the West Bengal part of the basin due to relatively the Darjeeling Coalfields and could carry pyrites,
greater rate of subsidence of the southern part of the arsenopyrites etc., from the exposed coal seams
hinge through the Tertiary and recent times. occurring all along the eastern Himalayan foothills.
The basaltic rocks of Rajmahal area lying in the north-
3.4 The river system and its Sedimentation western part of the delta might have also supplied
sedimentary detritus. Again, all the easterly flowing
The affected area is a part of the Ganga Brahmaputra
river cutting across Raniganj and other coalfields
delta having succession of Quaternary sediments of
might also be responsible for bringing arsenic
varying thickness. The deltaic region of Bengal formed
minerals from the mine workings.
the seaward continuation of the Bengal basin, which
is bounded on three sides west, north and northeast The heavy mineral assemblages from sub-surface
by pre-cambrian crystalline rocks and on the eastern sediments of Habra sediments of Habra block, North
side by tertiary hill ranges of the Assam-Burma arc. 24 Paraganas district in light grey micaceous fine to
This erosional history of the rivers and their numerous medium sand are kyanite-garnet-staurolite-biotite-
tributaries undergoing changes in the position of their tourmaline-Chlorite-Hornblende-Epidote and those in

33 9, 2006

Reddish brown sand are staurolite-garnet-sillimanite- 5. Causes of High incidence of Arsenic in

opaque tourmaline-kyanite-biotite-chloride-epidote. Groundwater
In both the cases the source materials denote highly
5.1 Some of the research workers believe that
metamorphosed rocks. XRD analysis of sediments
leaching of arsenic in groundwater seems to have
also indicates major quantities of quartz and feldspar
been influenced by the number of interacting factors.
with illite and chlorite clay minerals. Arsenic was
observed to have been deposited as adsorbed 5.2 During the eighties there was a remarkable
primary metal on sand grains of biotite and quartz change in the minor irrigation sector due to rapid
with a few scattered grains of arsenopyrite. growth in Agro-commercialisation. Cultivation of
Summer Paddy (Boro) expanded in the seven
Both in Murshidabad and North 24 Paraganas district,
districts of South Bengal with an unpredictable rate
concentration of arsenic in acid leachate (pH 2.0)
each year. The Boro cropping is almost dependent
and alkali leachate (pH 12) was highest in the clay
on the tubewell irrigation. Immediate manifestation
followed by sandy clay and lowest in sand. A striking
of that agro practice was lowering of ground water
difference between the sediment samples of 24
level at alarming rate.
Paraganas and that of Murshidabad district is that in
the former alkali leachates are appreciably higher than 5.3 As discussed in preceding paragraphs, the
in the acid leachates while in the later the acid ground water occurring mainly within the shallow
leachates are higher than the alkali leachates. zone (20-60m bgl) is characterized by high arsenic
(>0.5 to 1 or above mg/l) and the principal source of
It has been confirmed from EPMA and that there is
arsenic is the arsenic sulphides minerals deposited
LAMMA study the presence of arsenic in Pyrite (Fe
alongwith clay, peat, with iron in the reducing
S2) in some samples of North 24 Paraganas district.
environment. The lowering of groundwater at rapid
The decomposition of arsenic rich pyrite results in
rate during summer season causes aeration of aquifer
the formation of Fe 3+ ion which act as catalyst for
oxidized the arsenic sulphides, makes it water soluble.
the further decomposition of pyrite.
It percolates from the subsoil into water table during
4. Aquifer characteristics
5.4 However, the cause of arsenic contamination in
Groundwater with higher concentration of arsenic
groundwater is still a debatable topic. Hence, it is
generally occurs within 20-80m depth zone,
necessary to study extensively the groundwater
commonly known as shallow aquifers. The deeper
reservoir condition, mode of recharge-discharge
aquifers are by and large free from arsenic, except at
relationship, groundwater movement characteristics
a few places where no perceptible clay layer separates
in time and space and to determine dissolved oxygen
the lower one from the upper aquifer. The aquifer
and oxidation reduction potential in groundwater to
characteristics of both shallow, deep, unconfined and
appreciate the cause of such arsenic concentration in
confined aquifers are given below.
District Depth Range Transmissivity Storativity(s)
of Aquifer in (m2/day) (T) 6. Efforts made by State Govt.
6.1 The Govt. of West Bengal constituted a Steering
Malda 20-95 758-2976
Committee (First Committee) in May 1988 to examine
Murshidabad 26-75 4512.10 3.89x10 -3 and investigate the Arsenic contamination ofground
70-118 7255.0 water in the districts having reports of such
Nadia Within 50 790-4000 1.1x10-2 to contamination. TheCommitteesubmitted itsfinal
5-150 5200 -4.38x10-4 report in 1991 with the following major
24 North Parganas 10-50 1000-3000 1.1x10-3 to recommendations;
Only the deep 3rd aquifer should be tapped for
70-195 4500-8000 7.3x10-1 to drinking water supply.
The water in new tube wells should be tested
24 South Parganas 236-276 1725 1.5x10-3
for Arsenic prior to commissioning.
Howrah 150-230 446-1872
The yield from the 3rd aquifer should be so
Hughly 20-60 3000-5000 101x10 -3 to regulated as to avoid large-scale vertical leakage
of Arsenic-rich water from the Upper Zone.
ISSUE 9, 2006 For Private circulation only 34

The Committee also recommended further studies: 6.3 Progress made so far
- To detect the spread of Arsenic contamination Several methods have been developed to remove
to newer areas arsenic from groundwater by the Public Health and
Engineering Department (PHED), Govt of West Bengal,
- Finding out appropriate Arsenic removal
All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health,
Tropical School of Medicines (S.T. M.), Calcutta and
School of Environmental Studies, Jadhavpur
6.2 Another Committee was constituted in April 1992
University which are indicated as follows.
as a follow up of recommendations of the Steering
Committee with the following terms of reference;
6.3.1 Arsenic Removal Plant (ARP) fitted directly
The recommendations in the report submitted in with Hand Pump
October 1994 are as follows:
This has been developed by PHED, GoWB by using
a) Safe depth of aquifer for tube wells in five arsenic adsorption technique. These ARP are functioning
affected districts (except Malda). under continuous flow system and it is attached with
the hand pump. Field studies conducted in arsenic
b) Treatment for ground water / utilization of surface
affected villages indicated satisfactory performance
source for Malda District.
of these units.
c) Development of domestic filters to be fitted in
About 1000 such units at the end of 31st March 2002
hand pump with safe sludge disposal
had been installed by the PHED and Zilla Parishad,
benefiting around 2,50,000 population in the arsenic
d) Development of large scale Arsenic Removal affected districts viz., Murshidabad (702 units), Nadia
Plants with sludge disposal arrangement. (32 units), North 24 parganas (175 units), South 4
e) Change of cropping pattern requiring less ground parganas (25 units), Malda (62 units) etc.
water for irrigation.
6.3.2 Arsenic Removal Plant for piped water supply
f) Epidemiological, clinical and therapeutic studies.
g) Study the effect of chronic arsenic toxicity in
There are three such plants constructed by the GoWB
animals. out of the State Funded Action Plan as on 31st March
h) Study the impact of arsenic rich ground water in 2002 at Sujapur, Kaliachak block of Malda district,
food chain. Dhaititha, Basirhat block of North 24 Parganas district
and Gobardanga of North 24 Parganas district
i) Setting up of District and State Level Laboratories.
benefiting around 0.70 lakh population.
j) Research on exact cause of arsenic
At the Sujapur ARP, the content of arsenic and iron
contamination of ground water.
was reduced from 0.2 mg/lit 0.25 mg/lit to 0.02 mg/
k) Monitoring of ground water quality at least four lit 0.03 mg/lit and 1.7 mg/lit - 2 mg/lit to 0.2 mg/lit
times in a year. 0.25 mg/lit respectively after installation of ARP.
l) Provide adequate fund and other supports for
investigation of renal effects.

6.3 TheState Government collected information

from different countries who had encountered
problem of arsenic pollution and the
remedialmeasures taken by them. Interaction was Sujapur Arsenic Clariflocculator
made with experts from U.S.A, U.K., Germany,and removal Plant
China etc. toobtain the appropriate technology.
6.3.3 Surface Water Projects
TheGovernment ofIndia has also been requested
to come in touchwith these countries and have the Various surface water projects aiming to give safe
necessary feed back fromthem. drinking water are under construction viz., Surface

35 9, 2006

Water Project in South 24 Parganas covering 2.658 7.2 RIDF Assistance

million population of 8 blocks, 2 municipalities and
Under RIDF-X, a drinking water project involving a
18 non municipal towns., Rural Supply Water Project
project cost of Rs. 180 crore was sanctioned in the
in North 24 Parganas covering population of 7.50 lakh
Murshidabad, Nadia and North 24 Parganas districts.
population of 4 blocks, Surface Water Project in
The project will be benefiting approximately 30 lakh
Malda covering 8.17 lakh population etc. population for the design year 2027. Similar kinds of
projects can be sanctioned in other affected districts.
6.3.4 Domestic Filters
Various types domestic filters have been developed 7.3 Encouraging Surface Water schemes and Rain
by the AIH &PH, PHED. These filters are fitted with water harvesting
sand as well as candle. School of Environmental The surface water schemes viz., Lift Irrigation
Studies, Jadhavpur University have also developed Schemes etc., for irrigation and drinking water on
such filters fitted with specially manufactured location specific basis may be encouraged in the
candles. These candles are fitted with tablets of affected districts.
chemicals, which are disposable.
In addition to this, Rain Water can be harvested by
6.3.5 AMAL Arsenic Removal Units construction of water harvesting tank (Farm Pond) in
the command of the farmers and can be utilized in
Bengal Engineering College has developed Arsenic the water stress period. The availability of water in
Removal units which were constructed using the the farmers field during water stressed period will
conventional domestic candle filters. About 7 definitely help to avoid crop loss and further, these
AMAL Arsenic Removal units were installed by the structures can be used to generate additional income
college in 3 affected villages in the district of 24 by taking pisciculture. This can be achieved by proper
Parganas(N). implementation of the recently announced Rain Water
6.3.6 As per the estimates, as on 31 December 2001, Harvesting Scheme for SC and ST Farmers. While
about 45 million population had been benefited from preparing the banking plan, due care has already been
the different arsenic mitigation schemes. taken while allocating targets to these districts. For a
wider benefit there is need to announce separate
7.0 Suggested Role of NABARD scheme or to extend the present scheme to other
farmers also.
7.1 R&D Support
There is a need to popularize such scheme to minimize
Although the arsenic problem is about two decades the stress over the Ground Water and further
old and we are deeply concerned with the arsenic contamination of arsenic in groundwater can be
contamination of drinking water, surveys and arrested.
detailed studies are not yet conducted on the
amount of the arsenic in irrigation water and Reference:
consequent entry of the element through food into
the bodies of humans and animals (through 1. High incidence of Arsenic in Ground water in
vegetables, foodgrains etc.). This aspect can be West Bengal report published by CGWB, GoI,
studied under R&D grant assistance. Similarly, cause Faridabad (July 1999)
of arsenic contamination of ground water can also 2. Various articles available on websites.
be considered under R&D grant assistance to the
3. Material available on the website of Govt. of West
Universities, NGO which are already working in this
Bengal, Deptt. of Public Health and Engineering
field. This assistance can also be provided to
Department (PHED) .
popularize the low cost arsenic removal devices
prepared by PHED, GoWB, Jadhavpur University, 4. Website of School of Environmental Studies,
Bengal Engineering College. Jadhavpur University