Report: Heavy Metals in Water Caused ‘Mysterious Illness’ Affecting Hundreds in India

Indian villagers stand on the banks of a flooded river in Oleru village of Guntur district some 400 km from Hyderabad on October 6, 2009. Aid workers used helicopters and boats to try to reach survivors of massive floods in southern India that have killed at least 280 people, as …
NOAH SEELAM/AFP via Getty Images

Experts concluded this week that lead and nickel content in drinking water was the primary cause of a “mysterious illness” affecting nearly 600 people in India’s southeastern Andhra Pradesh state in recent days.

The All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) sent expert teams to the Andhra Pradesh city of Eluru over the weekend to investigate initial reports of the mystery illness as hundreds of patients flooded local clinics starting Saturday. AIIMS found high levels of nickel and lead in 25 out of 45 blood samples taken from patients, according to NDTV on Wednesday.

“[L]ead and nickel were found to be the causative agents for the mysterious disease,” AIIMS said in its preliminary report, which the institute presented to Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy on Tuesday.

Patients suffering from heavy metal poisoning over the weekend presented symptoms including “a bout of epilepsy for 3-5 minutes, memory loss for a few minutes, anxiety, vomiting, headache, and back pain,” the Times of India reported.

“Most of the 20 patients interviewed said there was a change in the color and taste of the water. Some reported that there was a greenish/muddy discoloration of the household water supply,” AIIMS said in its preliminary report.

“More tests are being conducted by [the] Indian Institute of Chemical Technology and other institutes and the results are expected soon,” Chief Minister Reddy revealed in a press release on Tuesday. The World Health Organization (W.H.O.) has also sent a two-member team to Eluru to assist with the ongoing investigation.

“Nearly 600 cases [of the poisoning] have been reported so far, although health authorities are relieved because the increase in new cases has slowed; only 13 were reported till late Wednesday afternoon. In addition, only 70 of the reported cases are still in hospital. The rest have been discharged,” NDTV reported Wednesday. Health authorities recorded one death from the mystery illness over the weekend.

Eluru’s water supply is known to suffer from pesticide dumping. The Times of India on Wednesday noted that some investigators also suspect the weekend poisonings may have been caused by a recent fertilizer dump.

“A leading private lab in [the Andhra Pradesh city of] Vijayawada found high levels of pesticides, including DDT, in the water,” the newspaper reported.

“The Vijayawada lab report said dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDD) was found at 14.21 and 15.23 per mg/l while the acceptable limit is just 0.0001. Similarly, alachlor, a herbicide, was found at 10.88, and methoxychlor, a pesticide, was recorded at 17.64, against the acceptable level of 0.001,” according to the Times.

“Eluru is served by two irrigation canals that are interlinked. … Pesticides and fertilizers used by farmers … are dumped into these canals, which serve as drinking water sources for thousands of villages and the Eluru city,” the newspaper explained.


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