Rangoon – Arsenic contamination in drinking water, which poses a serious public health risk, has been found in all 12 regions of Burma, a Ministry of Health official says, quoting a joint survey with the UN child protection body, Unicef. The survey by the ministry’s Occupational Health section, Unicef water resources department and the “Border and Municipal” department, found water contaminated with arsenic at levels above 10 ppb (parts per billion) – the level set as permissible by the World Health Organisation (WHO) – was found in the states and divisions of all 12 regions, Deputy Director of Occupational Health Dr. Than Htut said.

It found the highest content of arsenic in Irrawaddy and Pegu divisions and a similarly high content in Rakhine State, he said. Contaminated water with more than 50 ppb of arsenic was found elsewhere in all states and divisions.

“The contamination of arsenic will be higher in Rakhine State because we took smaller test samples there … but contamination levels were higher than the worst states so we expect Rakhine State to actually be the worst state,” Dr. Than Htut said.

According to the survey of more than 80,000 water samples taken from 28 townships in Pegu Division, 42 per cent contained more than 10 ppb and 9.6 per cent showed greater than 50 ppb. Of tests in 26 Irrawaddy Division townships, 29.2 per cent registered greater than 10 ppb and 4.23 per cent, more than 50 ppb.

Out of 5,200 water samples taken in Rakhine State, 42 per cent showed more than 10 ppb, and more than 8 per cent, greater than 50 ppb.

The highest arsenic contamination is found in river valleys and delta regions and along the rivers, creeks, lakes and reservoirs based on water bearing mud and sand layers. The high contamination of arsenic is reportedly found in groundwater too.

“As there is shortage of water, we must take care of our potable water resources. The people think the water from rivers and creeks is dangerous for health as it is contaminated with human waste and other impurities that can cause infectious diseases,” the deputy director said. “So the people switch to groundwater by thinking it is a safe and clean water resource. But the groundwater is also contaminated with chemical residues and a high content of acids. It is becoming a huge problem.”

The surveys were conducted after water was found to be highly contaminated with arsenic in neighbouring India and Bangladesh. Called arsenic poisoning in the Bangladeshi wells the “largest mass poisoning of a population in history”.

Arsenic interferes with cell metabolism causing many effects such as cancers, vascular diseases and brain damage. It can also cause changes of skin colour, warts and deformities of the fingernails and toenails.

“We cannot drink arsenic-contaminated water by any means, even after boiling it. We cannot treat it by storing in a container overnight,” Dr. Than Htut said.

Water contaminated with arsenic at concentrations of more than 10 ppb was found in: Irrawaddy, Pegu, Magwe, Sagaing, Mandalay, Rakhine, Kachin, Shan (South), Shan (North), Mon, Rangoon and Tanintharyi, but only a few cases of arsenic-related illnesses were found or reported, he said.