Arsenic poisoning is often associated with murder plots and suicide, especially on the big screen.
Now, that deadly substance has been found in alarmingly high levels in Pakistan’s Indus Valley, putting up to 60 million people at risk of poisoning.
Mudassar Shah traveled to Sindh and Punjab provinces and has this report.
In Pakistan’s Thar Desert, the dry heat is scorching.
Sharief Burfat is 45. Moving slowly with a walking stick, he looks much older than that. He’s covered in sweat, the result of illness rather than heat.
Sharief is suffering from arsenic poisoning.
“My bones are weak but still I am grateful to Lord, because many of my fellow villagers’ bones have broken. They break easily, it just takes a slow jerk or a little fall,” Sharief told me.
When I met him, Sharief was returning home to Sindh province, after seeing a doctor in Hyderbad, five hours away by bus.
“I have been sick for long time and have consulted local doctors several times but they failed to diagnose my illness,” he said. “In a bigger hospital, I was diagnosed with a disease caused by arsenic poison in the water.”
Arsenic is odorless, tasteless and colorless. So it’s difficult to know if water is contaminated.
“Drinking water is one of the main causes of the disease, because we drink contaminated water. People here are not aware that the water is poisonous,” Sharief explained. “Diseases are spreading in the area because of contaminated water.”
In the Punjab and Sindh provinces of Pakistan, people once took their drinking water from open dams and irrigation channels.
By the 1980s, it became clear that diarrhea and cholera were rife. Residents started digging wells to get water.
But that led to a new problem: Arsenic poisoning.
“I feel my bones are still weak. I feel pain in my joints too. I get tired,” Sharief told me of the symptoms.
People are poisoned by arsenic when they drink contaminated water. Or when they eat fruit, vegetables and animal produce that has come into contact with contaminated water.
Arsenic poisoning affects all organs of the body. It can cause vomiting and diarrhea, skin lesions, weakening of the bone marrow, neurological and circulation problems, and respiratory failure.
Lubna Bukhari is director General of Pakistan’s Council of Research in Water Resources.
“Arsenic is purely a poison. A small amount of pure arsenic can cause death,” Bukhari stated. “It causes water borne diseases, bladder cancer, lung cancer, skin cancer and heart disease.”
Arsenic is naturally occurring, leaching out of rocks into the soil and groundwater. Irrigation then spreads contaminated water onto food crops.
And when wells for drinking water are shallow, more arsenic makes its way into the water supply.
A recent study by the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, shows that the level of arsenic in Indus Valley water supplies, is up to 10 times higher than the safe levels set by the World Health Organisation.
50 to 60 million people are likely to be affected by arsenic poisoning in the region.
“I am afraid it is very alarming situation in our country which needs the immediate attention of government,” said Dr Naveed Ullah, an expert in water quality at Peshawar University.
“It is risky only because our people have no awareness or very little awareness about arsenic. We must initiate an awareness campaign immediately.”
There are no cures for arsenic poisoning. Avoiding contamination is the best solution. Digging deeper wells could help avoid high levels of arsenic. Arsenic filters would also reduce the risks of poisoning.
In the meantime, tired of waiting for government action, Sharief tells me he wants to sell his land so that he can buy a water filtration plant for his neighbours and family.
“The illness can’t be overcome completely but at least it can be reduced if our government could provide water filtration plants so that poor people can get clean water,” he said.