Toxic Levels of Lead, Arsenic Found in Drinking Water, Industrial Waste

By Yen Saning 23 December 2015

RANGOON — Commonly used sources of drinking water around Inle Lake contain dangerous levels of lead and other contaminants, according to test results by a leading local environmental group.

Advancing Life And Regenerating Motherland (ALARM) has examined water quality in Rangoon’s Hlaing Tharyar and Shwepyithar industrial zones, as well as water inflows into Mandalay’s Taungthaman Lake and drinking water sources such as wells in villages near Inle Lake in Shan State.

Each study showed dangerous levels of pollution posing substantial threats to human health.

According to laboratory testing, traces of lead, iron and cadmium in drinking water samples, taken from around Inle Lake in November, were well above safety standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Union. The amount of lead in the samples was 60-110 times higher than the WHO maximum of 0.01mg per liter.

“Drinking lead could lead to stillbirths, inhibited body growth and hypertension,” said ALARM director Win Myo Thu. “There are a higher number of hypertension cases around Inle. It is hard to say that this is the reason…but we can certainly say that lead is harming people’s health.”

No data on the health consequences for local communities has been collected. Win Myo Thu said that byproducts from the nearby Te Gyit coal-fired power station were a possible culprit for the contamination.

Tests conducted at Taungthaman Lake between September and December show dangerously high levels of biochemical oxygen demand, a measure of water pollution. Lead contamination in the lake was recorded at 50-60 times the WHO standard in November at all three test sites.

Three instances of mass-death of marine life in Taungthaman have been recorded since April. Win Myo Thu said that the lead contamination could pass into the food chain from the lake’s fish stocks.

“We have to look whether there is an effect from blacksmithing, dyeing and printing businesses,” he added. “There are also distilleries which could be discharging waste products that absorb the lake’s oxygen. If the level of oxygen in the lake declines too much, this could kill fish and plant life.”

Drainage water tests in Rangoon’s industrial zones have shown that water quality in Shwepyithar is substantially worse than Hlaing Tharyar, with higher arsenic, lead and cadmium levels.

All three chemicals are extremely toxic. Between them, chronic exposure at unsafe levels can cause cancer, respiratory illnesses, kidney and liver failure, heart disease and brain damage, amongst a litany of other diseases.

In Shwepyithar, two water samples show arsenic concentrations 100 times above the UN Food and Argiculture Organization’s standards, while two other samples showed lead 60 times above the WHO’s safety limits.

“Some of this water, in some manner, will inevitably reach drinking wells, lakes and rivers,” Win Myo Thu said.

ALARM, under its subsidiary Eco-Dev, reported abnormally high levels of arsenic in the groundwater at Hlaing Tharyar in June, based on two years worth of test results. Waste water from factories in the Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone is being discharged into the Pun Hlaing River, a tributary of the Rangoon River.

He added that the testing highlighted the urgent need for the development of waste water treatment systems in Burma.

“There needs to be water treatment systems for individual factories and across industrial zones,” he said. “If water continues to discharge into nature [untreated], there will be severe impacts in the long term.”