A new study from Duke University reports that uranium contamination in groundwater from aquifers is common in 16 Indian states. While much of the uranium contamination is natural in its origin, groundwater-table decline and nitrate pollution from agriculture also contribute to the widespread public health problem; high levels of uranium in drinking water have been linked to chronic kidney disease.
“The results of this study strongly suggest there is a need to revise current water-quality monitoring programs in India and re-evaluate human health risks in areas of high uranium prevalence,” study co-author Avner Vengosh told Phys.org. “Developing effective remediation technologies and preventive management practices should also be a priority.”
The research team gathered its data from 324 wells in the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat, as well as 68 previous studies on groundwater geochemistry in the same areas. Uranium is often found naturally in rocks, which, under varying environmental conditions, allows it to more easily seep into surrounding water. Much of the gravel, clay and silt that are found in India’s aquifers were brought there through the weathering of the Himalayan mountains, the rocks of which contain high levels of uranium. As India’s aquifers are over-harvested to support agricultural industry, oxidation of these rocks enable uranium to escape and contaminate its surrounding environment.
Although the World Health Organization has established an interim safety standard for uranium content in drinking water, a similar regulation has not been adopted by the Bureau of Indian Standards’ Drinking Water Specifications. “One of the takeaways of this study is that human activities can make a bad situation worse, but we could also make it better,” Vengosh said.”Including a uranium standard in the Bureau of Indian Standards’ Drinking Water Specification based on uranium’s kidney-harming effects, establishing monitoring systems to identify at-risk areas and exploring new ways to prevent or treat uranium contamination will help ensure access to safe drinking water for tens of millions in India.”