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Why Is Arsenic in the Bengal Basin?

Karen Johannesson of Tulane University and Saugata Datta of Kansas State University have, along with their colleagues, shed new light on the ongoing mystery of how unsafe levels of arsenic are getting into the groundwater in the Bengal Basin in Bangladesh and West Bengal, India.

Arsenic threatens the health of roughly 60 million people in this region. Levels are high enough to cause skin, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases as well as various forms of cancer. Discovering the source of arsenic in the groundwater would permit researchers to learn which conditions or locations will result in safe drinking water wells and which should be avoided.

For years, geologists have debated whether human-made ponds were contributing to the release of arsenic into groundwater. One theory is that organic material in ponds can trigger microbial activity that dissolves iron oxide particles, releasing arsenic into nearby aquifers. However, in their study, Johannesson and colleagues concluded that human-made ponds likely do not play a major role in the release of arsenic into groundwater. The team studied six sites in west Bengal and found no signs of organic matter from ponds present in the contaminated water.

Although this research may rule out one theory for the arsenic presence in the Bengal Basin, much more data is needed from sites across the impacted regions to finally answer the question as to why the drinking water of millions of people is contaminated.

Images (1 of )

  • drilling a tube well in the bengal basin
  • researchers separate arsenic species in the field
Drilling a local tube well in the Bengal Basin.
Karen Johannesson, Tulane University
Researchers separate arsenic species using chromatography.
Karen Johannesson, Tulane University

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