The research was conducted along the Red River delta of Vietnam, where scientists tested water samples from over 500 private wells. Michael Berg, a leading scientist from the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, warned that sixty-five per cent of the wells tested produced water which contained “naturally occurring toxic elements at levels which exceed the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) safety standards.”
The most worrying of those elements is arsenic. Nearly a third of the wells contained water with high levels of arsenic. According to the WHO, water with more than 10 micrograms of arsenic per litre should be considered unsafe. The Red River Delta yielded some samples containing 3 grams per litre. Arsenic is widely distributed throughout the earth’s crust and is commonly found in groundwater supplies in certain countries. Long-term exposure to the element can cause chronic poisoning, leading to skin lesions, hypertension and neurological problems. Eventually, it can lead to cancer of the skin, lungs, bladder and kidney.
Over the last three decades, tube-wells have been sunk across Vietnam to provide ‘clean water’, where previously rural communities were relying on ponds, streams, rivers or rain water. It can take around ten years for users of arsenic-addled water to become chronically sick. When illnesses began to emerge widely in some rural areas, high levels of arsenic were confirmed by Berg and his team in 1998. (The same problem also occurs in Bangladesh, where as many as one in five deaths may be linked to arsenic poisoning.) Along the Red River delta in Vietnam, the latest report estimates that around 7 million people are at risk of chronic arsenic poisoning because their main source of drinking water is from groundwater wells.
Cheap sand filters can be used to reduce arsenic levels by an average of 80 per cent. But if water already contains many times more than the recommended amount, even with a filter, arsenic levels can be well over the limit. The relevant health agencies in Vietnam have already begun mapping the country’s contaminated areas and authorities in some districts have pledged to fill in polluted wells and hook up houses to pipe and filtration systems. According to Michael Berg, this is the only way to ensure the safety of local communities and he is confident the Vietnamese government will take the right steps to address the problem. “In Vietnam, people don’t wait for things to happen,” he said, “they act.”