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Retardation of arsenic transport through a Pleistocene aquifer



Groundwater drawn daily from shallow alluvial sands by millions of wells over large areas of south and southeast Asia exposes an estimated population of over a hundred million people to toxic levels of arsenic1. Holocene aquifers are the source of widespread arsenic poisoning across the region2,3. In contrast, Pleistocene sands deposited in this region more than 12,000 years ago mostly do not host groundwater with high levels of arsenic. Pleistocene aquifers are increasingly used as a safe source of drinking water4 and it is therefore important to understand under what conditions low levels of arsenic can be maintained. Here we reconstruct the initial phase of contamination of a Pleistocene aquifer near Hanoi, Vietnam. We demonstrate that changes in groundwater flow conditions and the redox state of the aquifer sands induced by groundwater pumping caused the lateral intrusion of arsenic contamination more than 120 metres from a Holocene aquifer into a previously uncontaminated Pleistocene aquifer. We also find that arsenic adsorbs onto the aquifer sands and that there is a 16–20-fold retardation in the extent of the contamination relative to the reconstructed lateral movement of groundwater over the same period. Our findings suggest that arsenic contamination of Pleistocene aquifers in south and southeast Asia as a consequence of increasing levels of groundwater pumping may have been delayed by the retardation of arsenic transport.

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Figure 1: Map of the Hanoi area extending south to the study site.
Figure 2: Contoured sections of sediment and water properties based on data collected between 1.3 km and 2.0 km from the Red River bank.
Figure 3: Distribution of arsenic and dissolved organic carbon in groundwater within the 25–30-m depth interval along the Van Phuc transect.


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This study was supported by NSF grant EAR 09-11557, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, grant NAFOSTED 105-09-59-09 to CETASD, and NIEHS grants P42 ES010349 and P42 ES016454. This is Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory contribution number 7698.

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Authors and Affiliations



A.v.G., M.B., P.T.K.T., P.O. and B.C.B. conceived the study. V.M.L., N.-N.M, P.D.M., P.T.K.T. and P.H.V. were responsible for organizing the field work and carrying out the monitoring throughout the study. K.R., Z.A. and B.W. participated in the field work in 2006. M.O.S. processed the hydrological data and carried out the flow modelling under the supervision of C.F.H. and P.O. J.L.M. was responsible for groundwater analyses at LDEO, C.S. for those at Eawag, and F.F. for noble gas measurements in R.K.’s laboratory. A.v.G. drafted the paper, which was then edited by all co-authors.

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Correspondence to Alexander van Geen.

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van Geen, A., Bostick, B., Thi Kim Trang, P. et al. Retardation of arsenic transport through a Pleistocene aquifer. Nature 501, 204–207 (2013).

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