Integrated Science Education and Research Centre (ISERC), Institute of Science, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan-731235, Birbhum, West Bengal, India; Department of Environmental Science, School of Earth, Biological and Environmental Sciences, Central University of South Bihar, Gaya 824236, Bihar, India. Electronic address: [Email]
The present study evaluated the heavy metal contamination in groundwater and associated ecological and human health risks of a geologically and anthropogenically diverse semi-arid region of Birbhum district, India. For a reliable evaluation, concentrations of nine heavy metals in 680 groundwater samples (N = 680) which were collected during premonsoon and postmonsoon seasons of consecutive two years from 170 wells were measured. The human health risk assessment using the USEPA model which is based on single value for each parameter may inherit certain inaccuracy and uncertainties in the evaluation. Unlike earlier studies, a higher degree of accuracy in carcinogenic and noncarcinogenic health risk assessments was achieved through Monte Carlo simulations, sensitivity analysis and uncertainty analysis. The study revealed the occurrence of the target heavy metals in groundwater with mean dominance order of Fe > Zn > Sr > Mn > Cr > Pb > Ni > Cu > Cd where mean concentrations of the carcinogens, Pb and Fe exceeded their maximum permissible limits. The water quality status evaluated using the modified heavy metal pollution index, Nemerow index and Heavy metal evaluation index methods resulted in medium to high heavy metal contamination in groundwater within a large portion of the study area which indicated its unsuitability for drinking purpose. The study suspects a moderate to very high risk for the groundwater dependent ecosystems in major part of the study area. The study further revealed cancer risks, ranging from high to very high within the residents due to accumulative exposure of the carcinogenic heavy metals in groundwater through ingestion and dermal contact. Minor populations of the study area were found to be more vulnerable to the carcinogenic and noncarcinogenic diseases than teenagers and adults, mainly through oral exposure. The study recommends the residents to consume treated groundwater since the primary route of heavy metal exposure was identified to be the ingestion route.