Health burden of skin lesions at low arsenic exposure through groundwater in Pakistan. Is river the source?

Document Type



Community Health Sciences


A significant proportion of groundwater in south Asia is contaminated with arsenic. Pakistan has low levels of arsenic in groundwater compared with China, Bangladesh and India. A representative multi-stage cluster survey conducted among 3874 persons >= 15 years of age to determine the prevalence of arsenic skin lesions, its relation with arsenic levels and cumulative arsenic dose in drinking water in a rural district (population: 1.82 million) in Pakistan. Spot-urine arsenic levels were compared among individuals with and without arsenic skin lesions. In addition, the relation of age, body mass index, smoking status with arsenic skin lesions was determined. The geographical distribution of the skin lesions and arsenic-contaminated wells in the district were ascertained using global positioning system. The total arsenic, inorganic and organic forms, in water and spot-urine samples were determined by atomic absorption spectrophotometry. The prevalence of skin lesions of arsenic was estimated for complex survey design, using surveyfreq and surveylogistic options of SAS 9.1 software. The prevalence of definitive cases i.e. hyperkeratosis of both palms and soles, was 3.4 per 1000 and suspected cases i.e. any sign of arsenic skin lesions (melanosis and/or keratosis), were 13.0 per 1000 among >= 15-year-old persons in the district. Cumulative arsenic exposure (dose) was calculated from levels of arsenic in water and duration of use of current drinking water source. Prevalence of skin lesions increases with cumulative arsenic exposure (dose) in drinking water and arsenic levels in urine. Skin lesions were 2.5-fold among individuals with BMI < 18.5 kg/m(2). Geographically, more arsenic-contaminated wells and skin lesions were alongside Indus River, suggests a strong link between arsenic contamination of groundwater with proximity to river. This is the first reported epidemiological and clinical evidence of arsenic skin lesions due to groundwater in Pakistan. Further investigations and focal mitigation measures for arsenic may be carried out alongside Indus River.


Environmental Research