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Until 220 million people worldwide, with approximately 94% of them in Asia, they could be in risk of drinking well water that contains harmful levels of arsenic, a tasteless, odorless and natural poison.

The global scope of this persistent public health problem is revealed in a new study, in which researchers present the global prediction map more precise and detailed of the concentrations of arsenic in groundwater till the date.

This map, published by Science magazine, reveals previously unidentified areas of possible arsenic contamination, including parts of Central Asia and wide areas of the Arctic and sub-Arctic. Small amounts of arsenic exist in virtually all rocks and sediments, but rarely in concentrations high enough to cause adverse health effects.

But arsenic is toxic and at high levels it causes a wide range of diseases, including neurological disorders and cancer. Because dissolved arsenic can accumulate in aquifers, drinking contaminated groundwater is a major source of exposure.

Consequently, the World Health Organization (WHO) reference concentration for arsenic in drinking water is 10 micrograms per liter. While the serious public health risks of arsenic contamination are well recognized, arsenic usually not included in the standard set of water quality parameters tested.

And because of incomplete and unreliable records and erratic testing, risk assessments are often full of uncertainty. This is why researchers Joel Podgorski and Michael Berg of the Swiss Federal Institute for Aquatic Science and Technology in Dübendorf compiled data from 80 studies of arsenic in groundwater around the world and they used machine learning to model global risk of arsenic.

The resulting map revealed the risks of global groundwater contamination, even in regions with few or no reported measurements. According to the results, the highest risk regions include areas of Asia and South America.

“The disparities in coverage of regulatory requirements in the United States have left more than a million americans in rural areas without knowing it exposed to arsenic with a high proportion of socio-economic and behaviorally vulnerable groups, “writes Yan Zheng, in a Related Perspective.