There’s too much uranium in India’s water, and nobody’s watching it


  • A study conducted by researchers at Duke University found high levels of uranium contamination in India’s groundwater supply.
  • The severity of uranium contamination has reached this stage due to the combined occurrence of natural and human factors.
  • The Bureau of Indian Standards’ Drinking Water Specifications doesn’t account for the amount of Uranium in water.
Uranium, known for its radioactive properties, has been found in predominant quantities in India’s groundwater across 16 states. This is the first time that the extent of uranium present in the country’s groundwater has been evaluated.

According to a study in the Environmental Science and Technology Letters, the prevalence of uranium in the country’s groundwater is well above the acceptable standard set forth by the World Health Organisation (WHO). But, as of now, India doesn’t follow any standards to monitor uranium levels.

Uranium isn’t a new component that humans have introduced into their environment. In fact, it’s almost as common as carbon dioxide. It’s in the rocks, the water and the soil. And like carbon dioxide, it wasn’t particularly harmful until the onslaught of human activity.

The age-old story of human impact

Groundwater depletion and nitrate pollution are problems that India is already familiar with. But the study, by researchers of Duke University, suggests that human factors serve as a catalyst taking natural uranium levels to dangerous heights.

Their analysis shows that water wells and aquifers, are both subjected to extreme uranium exposure. The water that flows in, has already traveled from the Himalayas passing through uranium-rich granitic rocks along the way. Thus, the primary source of uranium is geogenic or naturally occurring.

It’s only once this water is over-pumped from the aquifers that the anthropogenic, or the human aspect, of the cause-effect relationship is introduced into the equation. The water depletion, in turn, induces oxidation. Basically, whatever water’s left in the well gets enriched with uranium.

But, not all human

Though nature and humans bear the brunt of the problem, they’re not the only factors that determine the amount of uranium in the ground water. Using data from geochemical and uranium isotopes, the researchers were able to discern that other aspects like oxidation state, groundwater chemistry and aquifer rocks also had a part to play in the level of uranium.

Since human and non-human contributions co-occur, an already bad problem is made worse.

Despite the WHO setting a standard of 30 micrograms of uranium per litre, the chemical is yet to be introduced into the Bureau of Indian Standards’ Drinking Water Specifications. If nothing else, risk areas should be identified so that outbreaks of cancer and kidney failure can be avoided.
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