Drinking water contaminated with arsenic could potentially lead to thickening of the heart’s main pumping chamber in young adults, according to a study published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Imaging.
The damage is often only revealed over elongated periods of time, with individuals typically being chronically exposed to a low-level dose. This is the case in the Ganga plains, in which vast quantities of groundwater and the river itself are contaminated with high levels of arsenic.
This entails that a water supply to a population numbering in the millions is contaminated with high levels of arsenic. As more and more evidence comes out concerning the potential dangers of the chemical, it becomes evident that India’s contaminated waters may be having a far greater impact on public health than previous estimates would show.
Though several studies have shown a link between arsenic exposure and the risk of heart disease, this is the first study to assess its mechanisms in young adults. The study analysed young Native Americans in Oklahoma, Arizona and North and South Dakota whose arsenic exposure was found to be higher than the average US population.
The study found that, with a twofold increase in arsenic in the urine, the chance of thickening of the heart’s main pumping chamber (left ventricle) increased by 47 percent. The research also found that there was a 58 percent increased chance of thickening of the left ventricle in participants with elevated blood pressure.
As these results were found in young adults, this opens up the possibility for a heightened risk of heart issues across the course of the individuals’ lives. This risk, coinciding with other risk factors related to age, could have a significant impact on life expectancy. As so many Indians are exposed to high levels of arsenic, this may be one of the reasons accounting for the increasing incidence of heart disease in the country.
An increased risk of heart disease is not the only damage arsenic exposure can do. It is also well-documented to increase the risk of a number of cancers, including skin cancer, bladder cancer and lung cancer. Alongside an increased risk of cancers and heart disease, some researchers have indicated arsenic to be a contributing factor in other conditions such as diabetes.
There is no easy fix to India’s contaminated water, despite the significant impact on public health. In order to rectify the issue and provide safe drinking water, the majority of the water supply system around the Ganga would need a total overhaul. Given the stalled progress on cleaning the river, this seems unlikely. Removing arsenic from the basin would require a vast amount of political and financial backing that is simply non-existent at the current time.