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Are rivers a source of life or death?

NEW DELHI, MAY 21. Life has taken a full circle. The rivers which have long been revered as being the source of ``life'' because of pure drinking water are now killing many as more hazardous chemicals get mixed in them.

Most of the rivers in the country alongwith other pollutants have a high concentration of heavy metals which can cause cancers besides other diseases, says V.K. Shukla from the Department of Surgery at Benaras Hindu University, who studied the pollution level in Ganges and its effect on the population.

The lead researcher was in the Capital to present a paper on `What makes the Gangetic belt so fertile for cancer' in a two-day conference on the disease.

Industrial waste and sewage disposed in the rivers have made the water virtually ``unfit'' for human consumption as they use it for drinking, bathing and irrigation purposes, he says.

Concentration of these metals in the river water is found to be much higher as compared to the safe limits for human consumption, he says.

``People who lived near the pipelines, which dispose off the industrial waste, sewage and other toxins into the river, are more likely to develop cancers and other diseases as compared to the population which live in far-off places,'' says Dr. Shukla.

The polluted river water which contains heavy metals such as Cadmium, Chromium and Lead is used by the population for various purposes and enters the food chain affecting more and more people as they initially develop gall stones and gall bladder cancer in later stages, he says.

``In the Gangetic belt about 72 per cent people who have gall stones develop cancer in the later stages while the ratio is very low in other regions of the country,'' he says.

During last decade there has been a rise in the incidence of cancer especially gall bladder cancer among the people in the Gangetic belt which partly could be attributed to the dietary habits of the people, he says.

The pollution in the river water is not restricted to the river itself. The water is used for irrigation purpose which pollutes the soil and the environment and enters the food chain affecting more and more people, according to A.K. Dewan, senior Oncologist at Rajiv Gandhi Cancer and Research Institute in New Delhi.

Environment plays a major role in the development of cancer as in United States people have gall stones but unlike India they do not develop gall bladder cancer, he says.

The size of the gall stones also matters as patients with bigger gallstones are more likely to develop cancer, he says.

``Patients with gallstones 2 to 2.9 centimeter in diameter have 2.4 times higher risk of developing gall bladder cancer whereas stones with more than 3 cm diameter increases the risk by 10 times,'' he says.

The exact cause of gall bladder cancers is not known but the polluted river water, due to industrial waste and untreated sewage disposed in it, contribute a lot in the development of cancers in the country, he says.

Diet also plays a significant role in the development of gall bladder cancer, he says adding ``a significant part of the population in the region is nutrient deficit.

``People in this region use mustard oil for cooking while in South India they use coconut oil and have less patients of gall stones as compared to this region,'' he says.

Change in food habits coupled with intake of hormone especially among the women in urban areas also contribute to the increase in number of breast cancer patients in these cities, according to Manoj Sharma, Associate Professor of Radiotherapy at Maulana Azad Medical College.

``Women who consume food, which contain high amount of fat and oil on a regular basis without physical activity to balance it, are more prone to get the disease,'' he says.

``About 29 per 100,000 female population in Delhi and 27 in Mumbai suffered from the diseases. It affects more number of females in the two cities as compared to any other form of cancer,'' he says.


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