Tackling groundwater arsenic and health inequalities in India

Water is a fundamental part of our daily lives: we drink it, cook with it, and use it to farm. But in many rural areas in northern India, groundwater is naturally contaminated by arsenic and is causing tens of thousands of premature deaths every year.

Research at The University of Manchester is focusing on understanding and finding solutions to the problem to help keeping people healthy.

This work delivers on the UN Sustainable Development Goal 6: ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

Key facts

  • Annually, tens of thousands of people in India are estimated to die prematurely from drinking arsenic in groundwater
  • Consuming arsenic in groundwater poses major health risks and has contributed to an increase in cancer and cardiovascular disease

In some of northern India’s rural communities, increased exposure to high concentrations of arsenic and other chemicals found in groundwater has contributed to a rise in cancer and cardiovascular disease, adding to the public health inequalities and poor health outcomes of the region.

The research focuses on where arsenic is found, how it gets there, the impact on people’s health and what solutions might work.

Rice as an exposure route

This work highlights the importance of rice as an exposure route for inorganic arsenic. It shows the link between the consumption of higher-arsenic rice as a staple in people's diet and genetic damage known to be associated with various cancers.

In this study, those who ate high-arsenic rice showed more evidence of genetic damage than those who ate low-arsenic rice, so the recommendations have focused on rice selection and preparation techniques people can use to help protect their health, including choosing lower inorganic arsenic rice varieties (basmati) and cooking rice in a large excess of water.

Uniquely modelling groundwater arsenic

This research has shown that certain types of microbes promote the release of arsenic into groundwater from materials such as sand and silt. It also highlighted how large-scale withdrawal of groundwater for irrigation might be making the problem worse.

Our research into groundwater arsenic in northern India focuses on where it is, how it gets there, what the impact on people’s health is and what solutions might work in order to help.

Dr David Polya / Professor of Environmental Geochemistry

While this work largely takes place in the Ganges River Basin, the team has used a machine learning model that shows that high groundwater arsenic is likely to also exist in some areas of southern India as well, helping identify areas where arsenic mitigation is required.

Partnering up to find solutions

This research is being done as part of a joint India-UK water quality project (FAR-GANGA) in collaboration with key India institutions, including:

  • The National Institute of Hydrology and IIT Kharagpur, who have provided expertise on regional hydrology and geochemistry
  • IIT Roorkee, who are developing further arsenic mitigation technologies
  • The Research Centre of the Mahavir Cancer Sansthan, whose hospital provides treatment to patients from arsenic impacted areas.

The project has also benefited from the advice and experience of the Government of India Central Groundwater Board, Public Health Engineering departments and NGOs operating in India.