Millions of people in West Bengal and Bangladesh consume toxic arsenic daily not only through potable drinking water, but also by having staple food rice. Some varieties of rice are swift in sucking arsenic from the soil and thereby creating health problems. The apex research body in the country, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has done little to fight this menace; the admission came from its director-general, Samir K Brahmachari on Sunday.
Japanese scientists have brought to light that some varieties of rice assimilate arsenic when the paddy fields are irrigated with groundwater. In some areas of West Bengal and Bangladesh, groundwater contains high levels of arsenic. Arsenic is a carcinogen, which can cause skin cancer. The findings of the Japanese scientists have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.
The Japanese scientists have found two plant proteins that primarily transport arsenite from the soil. Both transporter proteins are expressed in the roots. While one protein (Lsi1) is the port of entry for arsenite from soil to the roots, the other protein (Lsi2) controls the flow of arsenite from roots to the stalk and grain.
Brahmachari, who is here to participate in the 96th Indian Science Congress said: “We are studying the situation and trying to find out, which non-food crops assimilate arsenic the way the rice does. Once we are able find out such a crop, we can deploy it for cultivation in arsenic affected so that the groundwater can be free from arsenic.”
Arsenic-contaminated rice is also found in other parts of the world—in US, China, Australia and Europe. A study done by the University of Cornell found though the US rice contains high level of arsenic, it has been found to be less toxic. The study suggested that the rice varieties should be bred in such a way that they convert the inorganic form of arsenic to its organic variant, which is believed to be far less toxic and excreted more rapidly by a human being.
When questioned about the environmental problems caused by the cement industry and coal mining in northeastern, Brahmachari said: “Coal from Assam contains low ash but has high levels of sulphur content. Coal in this region contains 7% to 9% sulphur as against the normal level of 0.7%. The problem is due to high levels of both organic and inorganic sulphur content. We have not yet come out with a solution, but are working on it.”
Cement industry and coal mining have contaminated rivers in the northeast. It has adversely affected inland fisheries, the source of livelihood in the region. Brahmachari evaded the issue by saying “We are working to find out a technological solution to the problem.”