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Rising Pollution in the Ganges May Lead to Neurological Diseases: Study

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Aug 27, 2021

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Image Credit: Global Journalist

A whole spectrum of neurological diseases is common in the riverside of the Ganges due to high levels of pollution in the water, according to a new peer-reviewed study by Indian scientists.

Published in the International Journal of Neuroscience, the study was conducted by experts from the Institute of Medical Sciences at the Banaras Hindu University. They studied the prevalence of neurological diseases in 2016 on people staying at differing distances from the bank of the river.

According to the researchers, the three most common neurological diseases affecting the population were stroke, seizures, and septic encephalopathy. The study also found people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, myopathy, and myelitis, among others, albeit in smaller numbers. The disease burden was the highest in people between 50 and 70 years of age.

Neurotoxic chemicals and heavy metal toxins dumped in the river, especially above the permissible limits, are among the likely causes behind the spectrum of neurological disorders prevalent in the riverside, according to the researchers.

“River Ganga has been polluted over the last several decades with increasing population, urbanization and defective sewage treatment and improper government policies,” the Times of India noted.

On one hand, the Ganges is believed to be the fifth most polluted river globally, and on the other, the Gangetic belt in India is one of the most densely populated regions in the world. It reportedly serves as a water source for an estimated 400 million people, making its repercussions on public health all the more alarming.


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A study from 2020 had also found that compared to the general population, fish workers reported higher incidences of skin diseases, jaundice, and other infections like diarrhea, cholera, and typhoid. This happens because they are largely dependent on water from the river for drinking. Researchers concluded that “finding suggestive evidence that the incidence of diseases can be linked to the quality of the Ganga’s water.”

Shaikh Ziauddin Ahammad, a professor of biochemical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, had told The New York Times in 2019 that levels of bacteria in the river water are “astronomically high” and can be attributed to ritual bathers, who come to the river to wash away their sins. “We are not telling people to stop rituals they’ve done for thousands of years… But the government should do more to control the pollution and protect them”, Ahammad added.

Experts note that the Ganges also carries “superbugs,” or antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In fact, the river was also believed to be instrumental in the development of “water-borne superbugs” NDM-1, a multi-resistance gene that spread rapidly, leading the World Health Organization (WHO) to issue a statement alerting governments.

“While the Ganges may be considered holy, major health risks are transmitted to the human population either by direct bathing in the dirty water or by drinking,” an article on BioMed Central reads.

The researchers believe their paper will enable policymakers to develop “future preventive steps to formulate plans” to reduce the pollution in the Ganges. One can only hope, as it’s not just human life that is in danger due to pollution. 10 species of dolphins that call the Ganges home are also endangered. Reports of bodies floating (after religious cremation) in the Ganges during the deadly second wave of COVID-19 raised concerns for the sustainability of the ecosystem. Will this finally be the wake-up call needed to address the public health risk and ecological endangerment the pollution to the Ganges poses?

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Written By Devrupa Rakshit

Devrupa Rakshit is an associate editor with The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, and a painter by shaukh. She has her own podcast called #DateNightsWithD on Spotify. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.

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