The groundwater pumped by WASA tubewells and supplied to more than 130 areas in Lahore for drinking contains arsenic well above 10 parts per billion (ppb), the World Health Organisation (WHO) guideline, reveals a study available to The Express Tribune.
The safe arsenic level set by the Pakistan Standards and Quality Control Authority (PSQCA) is 50ppb. Of the areas surveyed, water at 15 locations exceeds the PSQCA limit.
Around 47 sites had arsenic concentration ranging between 40ppb and 50 ppb; as many as 70 areashave arsenic concentration ranging between 30ppb and 40 ppb.
At 173 tubewells, the level of arsenic was above 10ppb. Forty-seven of the tubewells had between 40ppb and 50ppb of arsenic.
In 1993, the WHO had set the standard for arsenic in drinking water at 10ppb. Since then the standard has been implemented in most of the developed countries. America, which adopted the standard in 2002, complied with it by 2006.
It, however, remains fixed at 50ppb for countries with inadequate detection measuring facilities like Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. Other countries with the 50ppb limit include Bahrain, Bolivia, China, Egypt, Indonesia, Oman, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.
The study was a joint venture between the Water and Sanitation Agency (Wasa) and the PunjabUniversity’s department of environmental engineering.
The agency commissioned the study after the Lahore High Court took suo motu notice, in2010, of news reports regarding an Environmental Protection Department study. The study had found dangerous levels of arsenic in 253 of 392 tubewells in the city.
The court disposed of the notice after the Wasa MD assured the court that he will install arsenic filtration plants in areas with high arsenic levels. He had also assured the court that the agency will commission another study to measure arsenic levels.
A fresh study was commissioned in early 2011. It was finished in December the same year.
The agency has not shared the findings with the media or the public.
A senior WASA officer, who spoke to The Tribune on condition anonymity, said arsenic concentrations well above the safe level had been detected in groundwater in the entire upper Indus plain.
The official said arsenic had been first detected in Lahore’s groundwater seven years ago. He said although in many countries arsenic among other heavy metal seep into the ground as a result of using sewage water contaminated with industrial effluents in raising crops, that is not the case in Pakistan.
“It is present in the aquifer and has no relation to the depth from where the water is lifted. It has been detected in two cusec tube wells setting water from depth of 650 feet as well as four cusec tube wells drilling it from 750 feet.”
Wasa Managing Director Chaudhry Abdullah made himself unavailable for comment.
Asked why the results of the study had not been made public Iqtidar Shah, the agency’s deputy managing director (operations and management), replied “There is no need [to do that].”
He said the report had been shared with the Planning and Development Department and the Finance Department so that sites could be chosen for the installing of arsenic removing plants.
“There is no need for an awareness campaign because the water at the consumer end is diluted compared with the water at the source,” Shah said of the areas with high levels of arsenic.
Asked why the agency had not made the public aware seven years ago that high levels of arsenic had been detected in Lahore’s water supply, he said, “We have better things to do. This was never an emergency.”
50 arsenic removal plants being installed
The Water and Sanitation Agency (Wasa) is going to install 50 arsenic removal plants across the city in collaboration with the KSB Pumps. The agency started the installation in June.
Each of the plants purifies up to 4,000 litres of water per hour and has a storage capacity of 400 litres.
Muhammad Tayyab, a KSB Pumps employee, told The Tribune that 46 plants had been installed, most of them in central Lahore.
Tayyab said areas with the highest levels of arsenic had gotten the plants first. “The residents of the area have been informed about the problem and most of them now fetch water from the plant,” he said.
Sumaira, a resident of Faizabad Bazaar, said that her family did not receive any such information.
The plants, he said, remove arsenic through GFH (granular ferric hydroxide) adsorption technology. The water is then passed through an ultra filtration membrane to remove microbes.
Tayyab said power outages caused plants to shut down for up to two hours or more. Though power outages do not affect the purification process, in some places the plants run out of water if electricity is out for too long.
Naveed Mazhar, a deputy director at Wasa, said the Planning and Development Department had been asked to approve another Rs8 million, so that 42 more plants could be installed.
Sajjad Haydar, a professor at the Institute of Environmental Engineering and Research at UET, said that though GFH was an effective method for purifying water, the absorption capacity of the membrane decreases with time. Haydar said the membrane will need to be replaced after every three years. The purified water also needs to be regularly tested to ascertain when it is time to replace the membrane. Wasa says they have taken samples once since the installation of the plants.
Arsenic: a carcinogen
A 1999 study by the National Academy of Sciences in the US had declared arsenic as a carcinogen and a major cause of cancers of the bladder, lung and skin. It can also cause kidney and liver cancer. The study found that arsenic harms the central and peripheral nervous systems, the heart and blood vessels and causes skin diseases. It can also cause birth defects and reproductive problems.
According to the WHO website, drinking arsenic-rich water over a long period (5 to 20 years) can cause arsenicosis (arsenic poisoning). But according to the WHO, “absorption of arsenic through the skin is minimal and thus hand-washing, bathing, laundry, etc. with water containing arsenic do not pose human health risks.”
How clean is your water?
15 areas with arsenic levels above 50 ppb
Ghaziabad Main Bazaar (166.9)
Paracha Colony (103.6)
Majeed Park (92.9)
Yousaf Park (Farkhabad) (88.6)
National Town Raj Garh – 84.1
Jahangir Road, Mughalpura (82.8)
Corporation Colony (Ravi Road) – 79.7
Iqbal Park No 2 (69.3)
F& V market (68.9)
Raffiabad Darbar (66.6)
Block 6-A, Township (67.2)
Pattiala Ground, Anarkali (67)
Aziz Colony (62.6)
Kohlu Ghar New (62.5)
47 areas containing arsenic levels between 40 ppb and 50 ppb
Ganj Baksh Town
DCO’s Office (46.5)
Karim Block (40.4)
Masoom Ganj (40.4)
Landa Bazaar (41.1)
Cattle Park (49.5)
Nasser Bagh (47.6)
Royal Park (43.7)
Nisar Scheme (43.2)
Near Shimla Pahari
Press Club (40.5)
Ghulam Muhd Bhatti Colony (40)
Abu Bakr Block (45.7)
Ahmad Block (45.4)
In Green Town:
Bhatta no1 (43.5)
II-B-1, Nishat Road (49.5)
Mori Gate (44)
Taxali Gate (44.1)
Shahi Qila (46.2)
Ali Park (49.2)
Iqbal Park No3 (42.3)
Timber Market (40.7)
Lorry Ada (46.9)
Fish Market (42.5)
Saeed Park (48.8)
Begum Kot New (41.5)
Latif Chowk (40.6)
Faisal Park (41.6)
Ghulam Hayat Park (41.1)
Khokhar Road (27.8)
H-2 Block (48.7)
Rahat Park (49.5)
Wahdat Road (48.5)
Campus View Town (47.8)
Mustafabad Town (44.6)
Mustafabad near Shaukat Centre(40.2)
Kotli Peer Abdul Rehman (40.4)
Sehar Road (49.2)
A copy of the report can be viewed here.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 1st, 2012.