Arsenic contamination in the Mekong Delta: a looming danger for the food system?

Interdisciplinary Student Research

By Ralien Bekkers, Esmee Kooijman, Alexander van Dorssen


Figure 1

In the Mekong Delta, Vietnam, arsenic contamination occurs from natural sources. Arsenic levels can be as high as 300 times the recommended value set by the World Health Organization. Next to arsenic poisoning through drinking water, arsenic also accumulates in the food system through irrigation, causing further health- and socioeconomic impacts on local communities. The problem has not yet been resolved and insufficient research has been conducted on the effects of arsenic accumulation in the food system.

For this reason an interdisciplinary research was conducted by three students majoring in Environmental Sciences, Earth Sciences and Human Geography. Our research aimed to find the implications of and solutions for accumulation of arsenic in the food system, with a focus on rice. We found that in the edible parts of the crops the concentration stays below international standards. However, arsenic accumulated in other parts of the plant, which are often fed to cattle. The consumption of contaminated rice therefore has direct and indirect (via meat and dairy products) health effects, which could be as severe as cancers. In order to tackle the negative impact of arsenic contamination on crop quality and consequently on local communities an integrative mitigation framework is proposed. The results of the research and proposed interventions are summarized in figure 1.

Figure 2

Figure 2

In the short term, it is important to conduct research on water- and soil quality in specific areas, to inform stakeholders about the situation and to start implementing remediation techniques such as filters on irrigation tube-wells or adding neutralizing agents to soils. In the medium term, the government will have to provide regulations consisting of stricter norms for arsenic levels and will have to facilitate a monitoring program and provide a toolkit to farmers. In the long term, natural co-precipitation could be an alternative remediation technique, and a participatory compliance mechanism between stakeholders and the government should be developed in order to control the arsenic problem. The aim of such a mechanism will be to ensure the effectiveness and implementation of the mitigation framework (see figure 2).

In conclusion, arsenic contamination and its effects on food systems in Vietnam is a severe problem. An integrated approach, such as our proposed mitigation framework, is needed. However, in order for such a framework to succeed, more field research will need to be conducted.

iisThis study was performed in the context of the Interdisciplinary Project course that is part of the bachelor Future Planet Studies at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies, University of Amsterdam. The course aims to design and execute research in an interdisciplinary team and to produce new insights with regard to current complex issues.

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