Satinder Bains/Punjab News Express
AMRITSAR: The underground water in most of the areas of Punjab is fast becoming unfit to dangrous limits for human consumption. Now for the first time, the sceintists have detected Aluminum in the underground water in some of the districts in state where water resources are already contaminated with Arsenic and Uranium. This is the first time that aluminium has been traced in water samples to this extent. Arsenic, lead, uranium, mercury, chromium, etc. have been traced earlier too. The problem related to aluminum is more pronounced in case of Amritsar, Fatehgarh Sahib, Ludhiana, Sangrur districts.

Dr Gursharan Singh Kainth Director Guru Arjan Dev Institute of Development Studies in the Guru Nanak Dev University Amritsar who conducted a study on the water pollution said that Aluminun was found to be more than the permissible limit in over 70 per cent of the drinking water samples. Aluminum can cause dementia and other neurological problems. Uranium, chromium, cadmium have also been found in 1 per cent of the water samples. Uranium, chromium, cadmium and lead are also highly toxic substances and can cause serious health problems and damage the nervous system.

He said that Sub-soil water in Punjab is getting polluted at a faster pace now. Punjab has decided to source drinking water from canal networks in the districts of Moga and Barnala where the presence of toxic metals in sub-soil water is widespread. In areas where the problem is not that alarming, RO systems will be installed to remove toxic metals.

Dr.Kainth stated that the water situation in Punjab was really bad. We need more scientific studies to understand the implications on health of people consuming this uranium contaminated water. We need to know the source of uranium’s presence which is very unusual and inexplicable. As of now, we have only theories; we need to know the facts. Though there had not been any in-depth study on uranium contaminated water in Punjab, but one reason could be the presence of phosphatic fertilizers in the soil that trigger uranium content in affected areas.

Residents of 12 districts of Punjab and Haryana are consuming poisonous water as the groundwater there has been detected with arsenic levels beyond the permissible limit according to the Union Ministry of Water Resources. The ministry has directed the two states to prepare an action plan to contain the contamination. These directions were given on the basis of sample reports of the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) that found habitations of six districts each in the two states affected with arsenic in groundwater beyond the permissible limit of 0.05 milligram per litre.

Dr. Kainth said that Arsenic is a potent carcinogen and is known to cause cancer of the skin, lung, kidney, bladder and liver. Arsenic (As) poisoning from drinking water has been called the worst natural disaster in the history of mankind.

He explainjed that against the permissible limit of 0.01 mg per litre, arsenic was 0.06 mg/l in some of the samples drawn at Abusaid in Amritsar district. Same was the case at Anayatoura and Bhakha Hari Singh village in the district. Aluminum was above the permissible limit in most of the water samples in the district. In Dangarh village of Barnala district, aluminum was found in higher quantity in some of the water samples. In Dhurkot village, high level of cadmium was found. High level of lead was also found in Bandala village of Ferozepur district, aluminum in Butewala and Roranswali villages in Ferozepur district.

He said that Punjab was the only state in the country which is reeling under this unique and dangerous problem. The uranium content in the waters of Punjab has not only been increasing but spreading too. A recent study by Punjab health department has revealed that uranium content has been found to be 50% above the permissible WHO limit in eight districts of the state.

Ever since the startling news broke, in March 2009, that traces of uranium and other heavy metals had been found in the hair samples of children and adults at the Baba Farid Centre for Special Children in Faridkot district, Punjab, the Centre has become the focus of intense government and media scrutiny. The revelations were made by UK-based clinical toxicologist Carin Smit who noted the bizarre medical condition of the children who, until now, had been considered extreme cases of mental disability. Their limbs are deformed, they have bulges on their heads, and their eyes have grown well beyond normal size.

He quoted that as per state government’s survey, out of total 2,462 water samples, 1,140 samples tested positive for the radioactive metal. Water contaminated with uranium was found in Malwa districts of the state, including Mansa, Bathinda, Moga, Faridkot, Barnala, Sangrur and some parts of Ludhiana as well. Earlier, only two districts — Faridkot and Ferozepur — had reported uranium in their water and the related health problems. Punjab was the only state in the country where uranium content in the water is higher than the permissible limit set by the WHO.

Researchers at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, had found concentrations of uranium and heavy metals above the safe limit in water samples collected from various locations in Bathinda district which borders Faridkot. According to the WHO’s recommendations, the maximum concentration of uranium in water should be 20 micrograms/litre. Concentrations of uranium in water samples collected in Bathinda were found to be “very high and very unsafe from the health hazard point of view”. What is interesting about the study is a reference to “radioactive-rich granites of Tosham hills in neighbouring Haryana” whose activities were already referred to by concerned researchers in 1989. Guru Nanak Dev University study clearly suggests that the high levels of uranium in Punjab may have something to do with radioactivity in Haryana’s granite hills.

Dr.Kainth said in his report that in 2014, the CGWB collected 50 groundwater samples from Punjab, of which arsenic contamination more than 0.05 MG/L was found in six districts. These include Gandiwind (Amritsar district), Patti (Tarn Taran), Jhunir (Mansa), Dhilwan (Kapurthala), Ropar and Fazilka. In fact, 30 more blocks in 13 districts of Punjab have arsenic contamination ranging between 0.01 and 0.05 Mg/L, the report says. Department of Water Supply and Sanitation, Communication and Capacity Development Unit, SAS Nagar reported that Punjab had already taken precautionary steps by installing 1,848 reverse osmosis (RO) units in 70 areas out of 182 where arsenic contamination was detected. 561 RO units had been recently sanctioned by the state government and proposal for 1,900 more had been sent to the Centre for funding.

He said that groundwater is the primary source of drinking water for more than 95 per cent of the population in Punjab. As per PAU study, the arsenic concentration of deep water tube wells located in Amritsar city used for domestic supply for urban population ranged from 3.8 to 19.1 ppb with mean value of 9.8 ppb. Arsenic content in hand pump water varied from 9 to 85 ppb with a mean value of 29.5 ppb.

In Haryana, arsenic levels beyond 0.05 mg/l have been found in Gharaunda and Karnal (Karnal district), Bhuna (Fatehabad), Ambala, Nuh and Nagina (Mewat), and Kharkhauda (Sonipat). However, Haryana Public Health Department had not detected any arsenic contamination in the state.

Ever since some environmentalist raised the issue, water from 2462 tubewells was collected from across Punjab. Of the 1642 results available so far, at least 1142 tested positive for presence of uranium. While most of the water was from the cotton belt in the south-western districts of the Malwa region of Punjab, Gurdaspur from the Majha belt reported the presence of arsenic in ground water. Though the exact cause could not be pinpointed immediately, the most popular theory doing the rounds indicated that the heavy metals could have leached into the soil from the excessive use of phosphate-based fertilizers.Analysis of drinking water taken from existing hand pumps/submersible pumps, tube-wells, dug wells (underground water), and municipal water supply from the south-western districts of Punjab were found to have high Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), pH, electrical conductivity, hardness, and high content of arsenic beyond their permissible limits set by WHO along with high
variability, which is a matter of great concern.

80 per cent of the total samples analyzed were having arsenic concentration above the safe limit (10  g/L). Faridkot showed maximum contamination of 92 per cent followed by Sangrur 88 per cent, Bathinda 86 per cent, Ferozepur 74 per cent, and Muktsar 60 per cent. The mean arsenic level in water samples obtained from municipal water supply of Ferozepur, Faridkot, Bathinda, Muktsar, and Sangrur is 14.14, 25.171, 23.75, 21.86, and 21.21 with SD 5.177, 5.976, 5.30, and 7.59. The mean arsenic concentration in water samples obtained from public hand pumps is 15.36. A positive correlation between pH and As concentration was observed with r 2 = 0.94. There is need doe regular monitoring of arsenic content and the seasonal variation, if any, in future.

Dr. Kainth sad that presence of Uranium in ground water was baffling as there are no uranium mines in Punjab.

One of the theories doing the rounds is that the uranium may have come from Iraq where the US army uses it in its warheads. Some suspect air contamination caused by uranium-laden winds from Afghanistan, while others feel water contamination caused by toxic scrap dumped in the state’s Sutlej and Beas rivers may be the cause. Uranium could have originated from thermal power plants. “Coal, used in thermal power plants, is known to have radioactive material like radon and uranium.

Forty of the 149 samples tested were of children and adults from Bathinda. But there are those who warn against such speculation. “Punjab is already suffering due to a cocktail of pesticides and heavy metals present in the groundwater. It is too early to say uranium is causing autism etc. It could be one of the chemical-disrupting neuro-transmitters.