HYDERABAD: Dangerously high levels of arsenic, a toxic element, have been found in the subsoil water on the left bank of the Indus River in Sindh, and experts alarmed by this fact have started a project to protect the people from the threat it poses.
A three-day workshop was held at the Indus hotel by the chemical engineering department of the Mehran University of Engineering and Technology (MUET) and the University of Arizona on how to deal with the contaminated subsoil water. Prof. Dr Yar Muhammad Khawar said that, “The element is present in nearly 11 districts, including Tando Allahyar, Khairpur, Ghotki, Shaheed Benazirabad, Matiari and Thatta.”
The World Health Organisation specifies that only 10 parts per billion (ppb) of arsenic should be present in subsoil water, but nearly 200 ppb of the harmful chemical was present in some bodies of water in Sindh. Dr Khawar said that a rigorous study was needed to identify those areas with high arsenic concentration so that the potential threat it poses can be stemmed. Sample studies have been carried out in some areas, but there are no official statistics of the number of people who have fallen ill after consuming contaminated water.
Prof. Dr Muhammad Aslam Pervez said that the substance is associated with a wide range of illnesses. It can induce several types of cancers, including that of the bladder, lung and skin. The chemical also damages the nervous system, the reproductive system and the heart and blood vessels. The chemical can also cause birth defects, nausea and vomiting. “Unfortunately the most vulnerable areas lack diagnostic facilities to detect cases related to the high intake of arsenic,” he said.
Though many of the diseases caused by arsenic are curable, scientists prefer preventive measures instead. Technological methods that can prevent the disease include oxidation-reduction reaction, precipitation, adsorption and ion exchange, solid liquid separation, physical exclusion and coagulation to remove or reduce arsenic. However, these methods are very costly and require a lot of energy.
The USAID has given Rs22 million to the chairperson of the chemical engineering department at MUET, Prof. Dr Khadija Qureshi to establish a water testing laboratory, organize awareness programmes and fund two PhD students in waste water treatment. Dr Khadija is the first Pakistani woman to obtain a PhD in chemical engineering. The experts at MUET have already started working on low-cost technology which can be used to treat arsenic present in water at home.
Dr Deeba Ratna from Nepal, Dr Dragacia Veselinovic, Dr Inam Bhatti and Prof. Dr Muhammad Saleh Soomro also spoke about the harmful effects of contaminated water at the event.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 19th, 2011.