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Anthropogenic influences on groundwater arsenic concentrations in Bangladesh

Nature Geoscience volume 3, pages 4652 (2010) | Download Citation


The origin of dissolved arsenic in the Ganges Delta has puzzled researchers ever since the report of widespread arsenic poisoning two decades ago. Today, microbially mediated oxidation of organic carbon is thought to drive the geochemical transformations that release arsenic from sediments, but the source of the organic carbon that fuels these processes remains controversial. At a typical site in Bangladesh, where groundwater-irrigated rice fields and constructed ponds are the main sources of groundwater recharge, we combine hydrologic and biogeochemical analyses to trace the origin of contaminated groundwater. Incubation experiments indicate that recharge from ponds contains biologically degradable organic carbon, whereas recharge from rice fields contains mainly recalcitrant organic carbon. Chemical and isotopic indicators as well as groundwater simulations suggest that recharge from ponds carries this degradable organic carbon into the shallow aquifer, and that groundwater flow, drawn by irrigation pumping, transports pond water to the depth where dissolved arsenic concentrations are greatest. Results also indicate that arsenic concentrations are low in groundwater originating from rice fields. Furthermore, solute composition in arsenic-contaminated water is consistent with that predicted using geochemical models of pond-water–aquifer-sediment interactions. We therefore suggest that the construction of ponds has influenced aquifer biogeochemistry, and that patterns of arsenic contamination in the shallow aquifer result from variations in the source of water, and the complex three-dimensional patterns of groundwater flow.

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This work was supported by NSF EAR 0651678 and 0605515, and the Center for Environmental Sensing and Modelling at the Singapore MIT Alliance for Research and Technology. We thank M. Polizzotto, S. J. White, J. Jay, T. Lin, L. Roberts and J. Dittmar for help in the field; A. St. Vincent, F. Khan, K. Zwieniecki, S. Hug, U. Mayer, O. Singurindy, C. Varadharajan, G. Li, P. Jewett, B. Jackson, P. Zietz, R. Baker, J. Landis, J. Gabites, P. Girguis and G. Eischeid for sample analysis help; D. Schrag, J. Jay, C.-C. Lin and the research groups of P. M. Gschwend and H. F. Hemond for intellectual support; Anis and Mitu at B.U.E.T. and the people of Bashailbhog village, especially R. Chowdhury, S. Chowdhury, Sha’alam and Rasil for their instrumental support of our project.

Author information


  1. Parsons Laboratory, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA

    • Rebecca B. Neumann
    • , Khandaker N. Ashfaque
    •  & Charles F. Harvey
  2. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, Dhaka 1000, Bangladesh

    • A. B. M. Badruzzaman
    •  & M. Ashraf Ali
  3. Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA

    • Julie K. Shoemaker


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R.B.N. and C.F.H. wrote the manuscript; C.F.H. conceived and funded the project; A.B.M.B. and M.A.A. provided logistical support for the fieldwork, including the arrangements for establishing the field site; K.N.A. oversaw the installation of all the aquifer wells, collected the arsenic data from the aquifer wells, developed the three-dimensional numerical model, carried out field experiments to parameterize and constrain the model and collected all of the δ18O and δ2H data before 2008; R.B.N. installed the rice-field and pond lysimeters, collected the chemical data for the pond and rice-field recharge, collected all δ18O and δ2H data from 2008, created the endmember mixing profiles, developed the PHREEQ-C inverse models and conceived of and carried out the BDOC experiment; R.B.N. and J.K.S. collected the methane data for the aquifer wells, the rice field and the pond; J.K.S. collected the 2007 carbon-13 data for the aquifer wells, the rice field and the pond.

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Correspondence to Charles F. Harvey.

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