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Uranium contaminates India’s drinking water

Drinking water station Karnataka. Copyright: <a href=''>urfl / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
Women drink from a water station in Karnataka.

India has long faced issues with contaminated drinking water. Poor sanitation means diseases such as cholera continue to blight India. Meanwhile, industrial run-off further contaminates drinking water supplies. However, could India also be facing contamination issues of a far more radioactive nature? 

Groundwater in India is contaminated with high levels of uranium, found scientists of Duke University in the US. The university collaborated with the Central Ground Water Board, Rajasthan Ground Water Department and Gujarat Water Resources Development Corporation to study a number of sites across India. The findings show that around a third of monitored locations contained uranium in much higher quantities than the World Health Organization’s (WHO) provisional standard of 30 µg/l for the country.

Concerningly, the study noted that uranium has not been included in the list of contaminants monitored under the Bureau of Indian Standards’ Drinking Water Specifications.

While the presence of uranium in drinking water sounds concerning, concentrations below the threshold set out by the WHO are generally considered safe. Also of note is that the radioactive nature of uranium is not the source of any damage sustained above this threshold, rather it is caused by direct chemical interaction within the body.

As the kidneys filter out contaminants from the blood, they often bear the brunt of any damage caused by uranium contamination. Long-term exposure to uranium in drinking water can therefore result in chronic kidney diseases.

The study also concluded that much of the high-uranium groundwater tested also had issues such as high salinity, fluoride, and nitrate. This makes them unsuitable for human consumption.

“Uranium in India’s drinking water is not a new phenomenon”

Uranium in India’s drinking water is not a new phenomenon. It is a natural element found in a number of the rock types present within India. As such, it is expected to be found at low levels in India’s groundwater supply. Much of India’s water supply will have passed through the granitic rocks surrounding the Himalayas. These rocks, too, are often rich in uranium.

However, human influence may be enriching the water with enough uranium to drive the concentration to dangerous levels. Overpumping of groundwater can cause significant depletion of water levels. Depletion can in turn induce oxidation, which may lead to the reduced water supplies absorbing uranium particles from the surrounding rocks.

The study highlights the need for the government to recognise the potential long term effects on kidney disease caused by contaminants such as uranium. “Including a uranium standard in the Bureau of Indian Standards’ drinking water specification based on uranium’s kidney-harming effects… will help ensure access to safe drinking water for tens of millions in India,” said Professor Vengosh, head of the study.

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