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Specific Contaminants







Arsenic is a semi-metallic element that is highly toxic and carcinogenic. Naturally occurring in subsurface formations, arsenic can readily leach into groundwater. Naturally occurring minerals are, of course, only a human health concern when humans rely on those sources for drinking, cooking, or bathing. But millions of individuals are exposed to drinking water contaminated with inorganic arsenic. Exposure to arsenic through drinking or bathing in contaminated water can lead to the development of skin lesions and cancers.
While evidence suggests arsenic levels in groundwater aquifers in many parts of the world are acceptably below WHO drinking water guidelines, it remains a serious health threat in some areas, including Bangladesh, India, and to a lesser extent Cambodia and Vietnam. Arsenic-contaminated groundwater has also been found in Argentina, Chile, China, Mexico, Thailand, and the United States (WHO 2004b). As of 2004, 28-35 million Bangladeshis consume water with elevated arsenic levels; the subsequent number of cases of skin lesions related to drinking water in Bangladesh is about 1.5 million (WHO 2004b).


Mercury, which is largely a byproduct of fuel combustion, mining, and waste incineration, is highly toxic. Since fish bioaccumulate metals, they can contain high concentrations of mercury and expose people to  concentrations sometimes tens of thousands of times higher than that found in the water source, posing a serious threat to human health (WHO 2005). The mercury found in fish and shellfish is most often methyl mercury, which is particularly toxic.
Consumption of methyl mercury, particularly by small children and pregnant women, can lead to developmental and neurological damage. In adults, it has been linked to coronary heart disease. Inorganic mercury also poses a range of acute and chronic health effects, with long-term oral exposure to low amounts potentially leading to renal damage and immunological effects (WHO 2003b).


Lead exposure can cause brain damage, nervous damage, blood disorders, kidney damage, and developmental damage to the fetus. Acute exposure can cause vomiting or death. While natural waters contain almost no lead, it can be leached into water supplies from distribution systems and pipes. Copper, while an essential mineral, can cause stomach irritation, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea in relatively high concentrations.


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