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Contaminated drinking water plagues Indian village

Dec 09, 2009

In an unnerving finding, fluoride content in water is resulting in severe deformities and skeletal disorders among villagers in an east Indian state. Even with an increased number of the physically challenged, the villagers continue with the same due to absence of any alternate water source and ineffective administration.

Jaitun Khatoun lives in Sidekhurd village, Garwa block, Garwa district, Jharkhand, in eastern India. She is 16 years old but is barely two-and-a-half feet tall. Her limbs are severely stunted, her body frail and withered.

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Akash Kumar, aged two, son of Shambhu Ram from the same village, has severe limb deformities. He has ‘bowed leg syndrome’ (his left leg is bent inwards) and his fingers are attached to each other.

All of them are from the same village and their problems emanate from a common cause - intake of water with a high fluoride content.

According to a report by the drinking water and sanitation department, the fluoride level in samples of water taken from a hand pump in Sidekhurd village, and tested, is 3.5 ppm (parts per million) as against a permissible level of 1 ppm prescribed by the World Health Organisation. Yet, the villagers remain ignorant about the dangerous situation they live in.

There are two common types of fluorosis (which is caused by excessive intake of fluorine) -skeletal fluorosis and dental fluorosis. As the names suggest, the first affects the bones due to excessive accumulation of fluoride, and the latter affects the teeth. In most cases, the knees become severely deformed, the eyesight weak; teeth become discoloured and fall at a young age. Fluorosis can also lead to cataract, prematurely ageing calcified spinal ligaments, or softened bones, and other degenerative conditions such as spinal stenosis.

According to Dr R C Jha, a noted orthopaedic surgeon in Jharkhand, the symptoms of skeletal sclerosis occur in three phases:

  • Phase 1: Sporadic pain, stiffness of joints, osteosclerosis of the pelvis and vertebral column.
  • Phase 2: Chronic joint pain, symptoms of arthritis, slight calcification of ligaments, increased osteosclerosis with/without osteoporosis of the long bones.
  • Phase 3: Crippling skeletal fluorosis -- limitation of joint movement, calcification of ligaments/neck and vertebral column, crippling deformities of the spine and major joints, muscle wasting, neurological defects/compression of the spinal cord.

“We did feel that there was something wrong with the water as utensils that stored water developed reddish stains,” said Shambhu Ram. “Further, a greasy scum settled on the surface of the water… yet, in the absence of any option, we had no choice but to use it as potable water.”

Most villagers have discoloured teeth and suffer acute joint pain, particularly in the knees. They are unaware that the growing number of physically challenged children being born in the village has its roots in the drinking water. And the administration, though aware of the problem, has done little to spread awareness.

Chinia block is the worst affected. The water here reportedly has the highest fluoride content (4 ppm) in the district, although, according to a state government survey report, the results of water tested at the Devidham hand pump site in Ranicheri village were no less alarming.

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When villagers were asked about the so-called survey or when government agencies installed fluoride control equipment they appeared to be completely in the dark. Sixty-year-old Mohammad Syed Ansari said: “We have no inkling about all this. If there is any such equipment, when was it installed? And for whose benefit?” The villagers were not informed about any equipment, particularly in connection with its efficacy and maintenance. “More importantly, where is the equipment today,” Ansari asked.

Mohammad Shayajuddin Ansari’s family collects water from the same source mentioned above. His daughter-in-law, aged 35, complains of severe backache. She can barely stand erect and walks with a limp as her knees have become stiff. She seems to have aged much before her time. Her mother-in-law Kamrun Bibi has similar problems; no amount of medical treatment appears to have any effect on them.

Yet, when we visited the State Urdu Primary School in the village we were surprised to find that there was no separate water source or hand pump for the students. They drank water from the same hand pump in Devidham, a couple of yards away.

So we were not surprised when ten-year-old Vijay told us that his milk teeth that had fallen out were yet to be replaced by a new set of teeth. Or that most of the children we came across had discoloured or blackened teeth.

Rubina Khatoun complained of frequent pain in her upper arm and a tingling sensation that travelled down to her fingers. “I cannot hold anything in that situation, not even a pencil to write,” she said. Rafi Khan is unable to run and play as he often has a severe pain in his knee. “I can hardly walk, let alone run, when the pain hits me,” he sighed. He is unable to sit cross-legged and finds it hard to get up after sitting.

Their parents are no better off: joint pain and toothache are common problems.

The worst part is that even if the villagers are made aware of the situation they have no option. Take the village of Nemna, in the vicinity of Chinia block headquarters. The residents here belong to the primitive Korba tribe. Most of the women complain of chronic back pain.

“We could never imagine that the pain was being caused by the water we drank… we thought that it was pure,” said Dayamani. But are there any alternative water sources available? Apparently not. “There are no ponds; even the well has dried up. At least the hand pump is able to provide us with water,” she said. They did not know that the pump ought to have been fitted with a fluoride control filter.

We were somewhat heartened when, after touring a number of villages, we came across four instances where pumps had been fitted with fluoride control equipment, on the main road in Chinia block headquarters. But our optimism was shortlived when we discovered that only two of the four were functional!

The villagers of Pratapur told us that the state government was in the process of providing water from the Koel river nearby. Construction of a water tank was in progress at the time of our visit.

According to the drinking water and sanitation department report, the fluoride level in underground water is 3.25 ppm. Still, when we reached Pratapur Urdu Middle School we found that the hand pump there was not fitted with fluoride control equipment. As a result, children displayed typical symptoms of dental fluorosis.

So too at Utkramit Urdu School in Lavo (the water here has a 3.5 ppm fluoride content) where children were paying a heavy price in the absence of any fluoride control equipment.

Farida Khatoun, aged 12, complained of shoulder pain and stiff limbs. Safriz Shah, aged seven, had painful gums -- an acute stage of dental fluorosis. The hand pump in Sidekala village, whose underground water contains 3 ppm of fluoride, was also not fitted with equipment to control fluoride levels. Most of the villagers, particularly women, suffered tingling and numbness in their limbs, joint pain and backache.

According to Mangal Purtee, executive engineer, drinking water and sanitation department, Garwa, the maximum fluoride content in water in the region is 3.5 ppm.

“We had installed fluoride control equipment in 550 cases; 100 have become defunct.” He admitted that a more detailed survey at the panchayat level needed to be done. “I am not satisfied with the block-level report,” he said. He also told us that 22 schemes had been approved in the Chinia-Ramkanda-Majhiaav region for surface water supply; work is expected to start soon.

“We have appointed doctors on special deputation for the control of fluorosis,” Purtee said. Besides medicines catering to their symptoms, calcium tablets are also being distributed among patients.

Source : Infochange
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