Jean Bahr on arsenic in drinking water

People around the world rely on groundwater as a safe drinking source. But, as University of Wisconsin hydrogeologist Jean Bahr notes, groundwater can sometimes contain toxic substances – like arsenic.

Jean Bahr: We know that in areas of volcanic activity, in areas where metallic mines occur that arsenic is a common constituent in the groundwater. But it wasn’t on our list of things that we analyzed for regularly outside of those areas.

Bahr said that changed in the 1990’s, when health care workers in Bangladesh discovered that arsenic in the groundwater had been causing widespread illness.

Jean Bahr: Various kinds of cancer, and problems with the liver…

She said the incident surprised scientists, because the Bangladeshi groundwater source wasn’t near a volcano or a mine. Bahr added that, today, scientists look for broader features to suggest the presence of arsenic.

Jean Bahr: Is there arsenic in the rocks of sediments? And then, is the water chemistry conducive to actually dissolving those minerals and releasing the arsenic?

Bahr suggested that water drawn from private wells be tested for arsenic and other potential toxic substances, even in the U.S.

Join EarthSky in celebrating The International Year of Planet Earth. Thanks to the National Science Foundation and US Geological Survey.

Our thanks to Jean Bahr.
Jean Bahr is professor of hydrogeology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Vice President of the Geological Society of America.

September 14, 2009

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