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The water here is poisonous

Divya Gandhi

Contamination causing respiratory tract infections in Shampura



HEALTH HAZARD: This handpump in Bangalore yields water with high nitrate levels. — Photo: K. Murali Kumar

BANGALORE: At the handpump that yielded the highest nitrate concentration ever recorded in Bangalore city (which authorities had assured no one used any longer), remains a bustle of men, women and children waiting their turn to fill their plastic buckets.

Nitrate levels are at their deadliest in Shampura where slums and independent houses jostle for space off Tannery Road. The latest findings of the Department of Mines and Geology place nitrate levels at eight locations in Shampura between 350 mg/l and 750 mg/l, while the permissible limit is 45 mg/l. The problem here, as in most areas where nitrate level is high, is untreated sewage.

"No one told us that the water here is poisonous," says 29-year-old Parimala, who lives in a slum a few yards from the borewell. "We have told our children to avoid drinking the water because it smells like iron and tastes salty," she says, glancing at her daughters as they squat to wash clothes with the water they just collected from the pump.

The families that live in the tightly packed cluster of semi-pakka houses, including Parimala's, are fortunate that piped Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) water reaches them at least once or twice a week. But they are nevertheless forced to use the polluted water from the borewell.

Fifteen-year-old Almas shows me into her house, and tiptoes to get a glimpse into the large blue canister that stores piped Cauvery water. She last replenished the canister four days ago, and it is considerably depleted. She uses this water for drinking and cooking.

Almas, however, adds that the handpump is used every day, "morning to evening" and by "hundreds of people", including her. She cannot rule out the possibility that someone somewhere is drinking this water too.

"We used to drink this water," says sixty-year-old Lingamma, who has lived in Shampura here all her adult life. "The water has gone from bad to worse," she says pointing to the handpump, which now lies amid a heap of garbage. "Now if anyone drinks this water, they end up in hospital," she said.

At the Ambedkar Medical College half a kilometre away on Shampura Main Road, the doctors say they are unaware of the dangerous levels of nitrate in their groundwater. "Anaemia and respiratory tract infections are the main problems in this area," says Palani K., a doctor at the college.

He adds that the largest admissions to the wards are typhoid cases, followed by hepatitis, diseases he attributes to sewage-contaminated water.

Both anaemia and respiratory diseases have been documented as potential outcomes of nitrate contamination. A study conducted in Rajasthan, in collaboration with the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, Nagpur, in 2000, demonstrated the correlation between high nitrate ingestion and "respiratory tract infection with a history of recurrence." The important published records of groundwater contamination in Bangalore and their dangers have not been communicated to potential victims — or indeed even to doctors.

Neither has this information been translated into a cohesive action plan. Providing regular alternative supplies of clean water, and sealing highly contaminated borewell sources, the responsibilities in this case, of the Bangalore Mahanagara Palike and BWSSB, are provisions that have yet to be made.

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