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Diluting the pain of arsenic poisoning in Nepal

© UNICEF Nepal/2006
Jiuta Gupta draws water for her daughter through a new bio-sand filter, provided by UNICEF, that helps eliminate arsenic.

By Sagun S. Lawoti

As part of the launch of ‘Progress for Children No. 5: A Report Card on Water and Sanitation’, UNICEF is featuring a series of stories focused on achieving the 2015 targets set by Millennium Development Goal 7 – to halve  the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

NAWALPARASI, Nepal, 20 September 2006 – Twelve years ago, Harilal Gupta was thrilled to finally have a tube well dug at his doorstep. Little did he know that the well water was contaminated with arsenic.

“The symptoms started with nausea and weakness,” said Mr. Gupta, a resident of Thulo Kunwar village in Nawalparasi District. “In time, my skin hardened and small nail-like warts emerged on my palms, and soon I developed tumours, too.”

It turned out that the water in his village had an arsenic level well above accepted limits, the highest reported level in Nepal.

1.4 million people at risk

Arsenic is tasteless and exhibits no immediate side effects. Its long-term impacts, however, often include lesions, open ulcers and hardening of skin on the hands and feet. Ultimately, arsenic can damage the immune system and cause various forms of cancer.

According to a report compiled by the Nepal Arsenic Steering Committee in April, 2.5 per cent of the more than 500,000 wells tested in the Terai Region exceed the Nepal Interim Standard of 0.05 ml/l in their arsenic content. The number is far above the 0.01 ml/l standard set by the World Health Organization.

UNICEF estimates that arsenic contamination could affect more than 1.4 million people across 20 districts in Terai – home to about 47 per cent of Nepal’s population, nearly 90 per cent of whom depend on groundwater for their daily needs.

To systematically identify the magnitude of the problem, testing of all wells across the Terai Region is essential. The testing process has been completed in 11 districts so far, and arsenic-contaminated wells have been identified in those areas.

Filters reduce ill effects

“There are a few solutions that can be adopted immediately after identification of contaminated wells,” said UNICEF Nepal Project Officer Madhav Pahari. “The first, most reliable option is to find safe water from the nearest tube well for cooking and drinking. Secondly, people can drill a new well in the safe aquifers.”

If these options are not feasible or viable, a bio-sand filter can help remove arsenic from the water. Installation of the filters is one of the many initiatives supported by UNICEF to reduce the effects of arsenic contamination in Nepal.

Along with other residents of Thulo Kunwar village, Mr. Gupta was advised to have a filter installed. “I consulted a doctor, and he surgically removed the tumours,” he said. “But things didn’t improve until I began using the bio-sand filter, and that is only when I began to notice some improvement.”



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