For Ganesh Rai, a long and relaxing retirement was just on the horizon. However, this vision was quickly impaired as speckles of pigmentation appeared throughout his hands – indicating that Mr. Rai was one of the tens of millions of people in India who was a victim of arsenic poisoning. His skin lesions – known as acute keratosis – suggested that he had been exposed to high levels of arsenic in drinking water for the past five to fifteen years.
What’s the Big Deal with Arsenic?
Arsenic is a tasteless, odorless, and invisible metalloid most severely found in groundwater. Many anthropogenic processes (such as the production of herbicides, glassware, or semiconductor devices) can result in arsenic’s presence in water. However, regulatory restrictions have reduced both its use and exposure – thereby making humans less to blame for its presence in the environment. Instead, arsenic is predominantly produced by natural processes. It occurs naturally in earth’s crust, and it is released by volcanoes or by the weathering of minerals and ores. Groundwater is contaminated in this way.
The ingestion of the toxin-laced water can result in adverse health conditions including but not limited to: skin cancer, lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. Like Mr. Rai’s case, symptoms for the listed ailments may not even appear until several years after exposure. The World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines state that 10 parts per billion is the permissible amount of arsenic in drinking water. In places like India, however, arsenic concentrations of 50 parts per billion are allowed. That’s five times the amount of the WHO standard, yet still several districts in India have exceeded this limit. A district called Buxar, for example, was found to have arsenic levels reaching 1,500 parts per billion. WHO has deemed India’s arsenic problem as “the largest mass poisoning of a population in history.”
Everyone has the right to life. This right is protected by law, as it is a universal moral principle. Well, water is a basic building block of life, yet millions of people do not have access to safe and clean drinking water. To live, they have no choice but to drink contaminated water. In this sense, the right to life should extend to the right to a quality life. We must shift our focus and realize that sanitary water must be a given resource rather than an economic good.