Press Release – The business of reducing the arsenic poisoning of millions across rural India

Millions of people across South and Southeast Asia are exposed to arsenic through drinking and cooking with groundwater, however for as little as Rs20 this poisoning could be avoided.

The research, done by Alexander van Geen (Columbia University) and presented by Chander Kumar Singh (TERI University) and Prabhat Barnwal (Columbia University) at the International Growth Centre’s South Asia Growth Conference 2013 shows that a semi-commercial approach to arsenic testing can reduce arsenic poisoning.

After delivering a public-health message describing the risks of high-arsenic groundwater, field staff offered testing at a fixed price to each household. They found that the proportion of households buying a test gradually declined as the price increased from Rs10 to Rs50.

The researchers found that if the test was priced at Rs20, more than two-thirds of villages were willing to pay for the test. This would be sufficient to cover the costs (salary and transportation) of a tester with secondary education, assuming they conducted 10-20 tests per day. It would not be enough to cover the full total estimated costs of the test (Rs100-150) which include quality control and a handheld GPS unit for data entry and would need to be covered by another mechanism.

When the price increased to Rs50, only 22-55% of households were willing to buy the test. Those households with greater wealth (measured for example by the number of cellphones per household member) were willing to pay more for the test.

Background

The World Health Organization (WHO) has called the exposure to arsenic across South Asia “”the largest mass poisoning of a population in history””. Chronic exposure to arsenic by drinking groundwater at over 10 times the level of the current WHO guideline of 10 micrograms per litre has recently been shown to double all-cause deaths in a large cohort study conducted in Bangladesh.

Exposure to arsenic has been linked to increased deaths from cardiovascular disease and various cancers, infant mortality and on the economic front a sizeable drop in household income. Arsenic in groundwater has also been associated with impaired intellectual and motor function in children. No centrally-funded campaign to test the levels of arsenic in groundwater exists in India.

Key findings

  • Households in rural India are willing to pay for arsenic testing of their groundwater.
  • The wealth of households willing to pay increased with the price of the test. Two-thirds of households are willing to pay Rs20.
  • A tester could earn a living, cover transportation costs, and test most wells in a village by collecting a ~Rs20 fee from 10-20 households a day without unduly discriminating against poorer households.
  • The full cost of the test (including quality control) is Rs100-150, so additional costs need to be covered from another source.

Policy implications

This research shows that there is a market to have groundwater wells tested for arsenic. While an Rs20 fee would be sufficient for a tester to earn a living, it is not sufficient to cover the full costs of the test. A state-wide expansion of the testing campaign, including more public information sessions describing the health risks associated with drinking high-arsenic water, and funding to support the additional required costs, is recommended.

Research aim

The aim of this research was to determine the willingness of rural households in the state of Bihar, India, to have their groundwater well tested for arsenic for a fee.

Research method

Following public information sessions describing the health risks associated with drinking high-arsenic water, a total of 1,804 households distributed across 26 small to medium-sized villages in Bihar, India, were offered a test between October and December 2012. The price of the test was the same within each village and set at Rs10, 20, 40, or 50 in four groups of five randomly selected villages, respectively, and at Rs30 in another six villages.

Researcher

Chander Kumar Singh is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Natural Resources at TERI University, New Delhi.

Prabhat Barnwal is a third-year student in the Ph.D. programme in Sustainable Development at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.

Alexander van Geen is Lamont Professor, at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University. He coordinates earth-science and mitigation efforts under Columbia’s Superfund Research Program on the health effects and geochemistry of arsenic contained in US and Bangladesh groundwater.

 

This statement was issued at the South Asia Growth Conference 2013, held in New Delhi, India.