Isotopic Tracers of Surface Derived Components in Arsenic Rich Shallow Aquifers of South and South East Asia

  • Michael Lawson

Student thesis: Phd


The contamination of groundwater by naturally occurring arsenic (As) in South and South EastAsia has resulted in the exposure of an estimated 100 million people to hazardously high concentrations of this known carcinogen. Whilst the biogeochemical processes and mechanisms responsible for releasing As to groundwater are now understood, the fundamental controls on these processes have yet to be resolved. In particular, the role of different sources of organic matter (OM) in controlling the rate and extent of As release and how the contributions of these different sources may be influenced by groundwater abstraction practices, remains poorly constrained. Indeed, it is the absence of such key information which currently limits our capability to accurately predict both where and when As will be released in to the groundwaters of this region. Elucidation of the controls of these processes is therefore of vital importance for aiding policy makers and those responsible for mitigating the effects of the current catastrophe in providing a sustainable source of As free drinking water to millions of people in the countries impacted.We conducted investigations at two known As hotspots in West Bengal and Cambodia to assess the impact of groundwater abstraction practices on the composition of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) and As release. The radiocarbon age of DOC at both sites requires a contribution of young surface or near surface derived OM as well as contributions from older, sedimentary sourced OM. Mixing profiles at the Cambodian study site suggest this subsurface OM end member to have an age of between 1000 and 6000 years. A clear association is observed between high As concentrations in shallow groundwaters containing young DOC, with lower concentrations of As being associated with older DOC in deeper groundwater. This provides the first direct confirmation that younger, more labile sources of OM are able to support more extensive As release in these aquifers. Perhaps more importantly, it is shown that modern surface derived OM can be drawn into As contaminated groundwaters. Comparison of the residence times of groundwaters suggests that the extent of ground-surface water interaction is more extensive and extends to greater depths in aquifers that have been subjected to massive groundwater abstraction. Indeed, it is suggested thatgroundwater abstraction practices may be responsible for driving the downward transport of As contaminated shallow groundwater into deeper groundwater, and may potentially be driving changes in the composition of organic carbon within the groundwater. This could give rise to a more reactive, bioavailable organic carbon pool which has the potential to further influence As mobility in these groundwaters. The potential for secular changes in the groundwater As hazard in these regions must therefore consider the impact that changes in the DOC composition may have on the biogeochemical evolution of these aquifers.
Date of Award31 Dec 2010
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorChristopher Ballentine (Supervisor) & David Polya (Supervisor)


  • Arsenic
  • Groundwater
  • Asia
  • Isotopes

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