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The World in Medicine
August 18, 2004

Arsenic-Tainted Water

JAMA. 2004;292(7):794. doi:10.1001/jama.292.7.794-d

High levels of arsenic in large parts of the Ganges Delta have poisoned millions of people during the last 2 decades and the risk of contamination of drinking and irrigation water with arsenic continues to pose a threat to the lives of millions worldwide (Bull World Health Organ. 2000; 78:1093-1103). But the mechanisms underlying the release of arsenic from sediments into ground waters are poorly understood.

Now, scientists from England and India report evidence from laboratory studies that anaerobic iron-reducing bacteria (from a contaminated aquifer in India) thrive under conditions that favor the release of a toxic form of arsenic (Nature. 2004;430:68-71). Because the bacteria require organic carbon to grow, the researchers suggest that their findings support theories that the introduction of organic carbon through agricultural practices (such as irrigation) is a factor in mobilizing arsenic from sediment into the water supply. If true, the information could help scientists devise strategies to manage arsenic-rich ground waters.