With dreams in her eyes, Kali Bai married Tol Singh from Jhabua in Madya Pradesh and happily entered village Miyati ten years ago.
That happiness did not last long as she soon fell ill. The presence of fluoride in the village’s water made her weak every passing day. Her bones became a tangled mass and looked as if they would collapse any moment. This condition is called Fluorosis.
After two pregnancies and being affected by Fluorosis, her body had changed and she became unrecognisable. Her children were also affected by Skeletal Fluorosis in this period, a disabling disease that can frighteningly make the body degenerate.
Fluoride is an unwanted chemical in drinking water that can have disastrous consequences on health. The possibility of getting affected with fluoride is most when deep bore-wells are used for drinking water. Almost 80 per cent people living in rural areas in our country use bore-wells and they use them as they have limited other choices, according to Water Aid India (2009).
Early stages of Fluorosis affect the joints of the body, making them stiff. It also causes severe reduction in calcium absorption in the bones and iron absorption in the blood.
Fluoride changes the bone structure dramatically, making movement of the joints difficult. In extreme cases, once fluoride is fully entrenched on the bones, it can completely hinder body movement. Know more here
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), consuming water under the safety limit of 1.5 ppm of fluoride per litre can prevent Fluorosis.
The amount of fluoride that can affect the body depends on several factors – The amount of water intake, the selection of food and the state of one’s kidneys. The other factor is the need of Calcium in the body, as in the case of pregnant and lactating women, and for growing children. It is also seen that fluoride can make Anaemia worse in pregnant women.
Fluoride also results in neurological problems in children. A strong difference in learning abilities and IQ has been shown for children drinking high fluoride water. Apart from this, people who are exposed to such water for long periods show severe forms of neurological disease.
Food can also be a source of fluoride. Most forms of tea have very high fluoride and should be avoided by people living in high fluoride areas. Also, some forms of tobacco and rock salt are naturally high in fluoride. It is highly advisable to avoid fluoridated toothpastes, especially for children and infants as they end up consuming some bit of the toothpaste during brushing.
According to American Chemical Society (2012), more than 10 million people in India are standing to face disability and other serious health problems because of high fluoride in their water across 22 States and 200 districts of India, but numbers are always only one part of a story.
The cost around this is massive as Fluorosis has not only been crippling people and making them lose capacity to work; it has also been disabling entire families, with an associated loss to their income.
With the problem as big as it seemingly is, let’s see what can be done.
To prevent Fluorosis or limit its effects, changing the drinking water is the first step. This would prevent any chances of fluoride depositing on bones. Harvesting rain water is another wonderful way of consuming water that’s low in fluoride.
One should have food that is rich in Calcium, Magnesium and Vitamin C, as a combination of these can help dissolve fluoride and flush it out from the system. Food such as Amla, Moringa and Til Chikki help in developing resistance to Fluorosis.
Fluorosis is a slowly progressing and long-term disease. It needs massive changes in people’s habits and in their attitudes. We also need to focus less on infrastructure, more on Operations and Maintenance and long-term solutions. Among these are the use of alternate water sources like rainwater and local nutrition gardens.
If we look at it, there’s a laundry list of things that can help. Water needs to be supplied, food supplementation has to be looked at and overall behavioural change towards the affected.
All this requires different government programmes and requires them to take ownership of their respective parts of dealing with the problem.
For example, government programmes like the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), Mid-day meal scheme, anganwadi centres, National Health Mission (NHM) need to focus on the health and nutrition provision part of it, whereas a water department would need to work on the supply side of the problem.
At some point, these activities would need to get together at a district, block or panchayat level and it is here that proper convergence would take place under a district administration.
If we are able to get this strategy of converging action at a local level right then there is no reason why this problem can’t be eradicated.
Kali Bai’s son Bhur Sinh was affected with Skeletal Fluorosis along with her. At the age of 10, he was partially crippled and leading a forlorn life. But now, after 5 years of consuming clean and safe water and taking proper meals, he is transformed. His mother also stands up and carries about some of her activities without support.
Miracles happen, and we all need to work together to save millions of children and women from this dreadful disease.
– Vikas Ratanjee works as a Policy Advocacy and Communications Lead with INREM Foundation. As part of his role at promoting the Fluoride Knowledge and Action Network, he has been instrumental in developing campaigns and local group formation in several states.
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