Groundwater drawn by millions of handpumps in several regions of India, including Punjab state, causes serious health problems due to elevated concentrations of arsenic (As) and fluoride (F). Rocks and sediments are the natural source of As and F entering groundwater, although the buildup of concentrations in certain areas could have been enhanced by human modification of the hydrological cycle. A key feature of the distribution of As and F in handpump water is that it is spatially highly variable but relatively stable through time. Many rural households of Punjab with an unsafe handpump live within walking distance of a safe handpump, but the vast majority of handpumps have never been tested. This project seeks to assess the extent to which the spatial distribution of As and F in groundwater of the affected region of Punjab can be predicted and the temporal scale on which groundwater As and F concentrations are likely to vary, if at all. The approach relies on (1) testing a large number of handpumps in villages distributed along two representative transects and (2) using this unique data set to target more detailed process studies based on drilling and installation of monitoring wells at two geological transitions. The new field data will make it possible to test several hypotheses regarding the impact of various factors and processes on the local hydraulic regime and groundwater As and F concentrations.
The lack of testing of handpumps in this region has led people to drink their groundwater without knowing whether it is safe or unsafe. Besides its other research aspects, this project will test approximately 20,000 handpumps for As and F in alluvial aquifers of this region of India. Measurements in the field using field kits, with quality control provided by measurements in the laboratory, will demonstrate to local authorities that a blanket testing campaign is warranted and feasible using current technology. Assuming that 10 people are dependent on each handpump for their daily water needs, that half of the wells tested turn out to be unsafe, and half of the population with unsafe water would switch to a neighboring safe well, then testing alone will cause a marked reduction in exposure and improved health for around 50,000 people. This extensive data set, complemented with process studies at two geological transitions, will yield predictions that will help identify thousands of specific villages where future testing should be prioritized.
Summary of Recent Activities
A research team tests water from a local well for arsenic and other contaminants (Photo courtesy Dr. Singh)
In the first segment of the project, through the end of December 2013, the project team began its pilot testing of hand-pumped groundwater wells. Visiting U.S. collaborator Alexander van Geen assisted with the testing, which included a detailed analysis of anions and heavy metals in the water after the samples were brought back to Columbia University. As a result of these tests, the project team expanded the targeted territory for the PEER study. Some 700 wells in 12 villages have been tested and labeled with different pictograms indicating whether or not the water has unsafe levels of arsenic and fluoride.
Plans for 2014 include a visit by the PI and PhD scholar Anand Kumar to Columbia University in May or June. While there, they will work on testing samples using the inductively coupled plasma-mass spectroscopy (ICP-MS) method. Subsequent plans include training six teams of village health workers to test up to 20,000 wells.