Elevated and variable groundwater iron in rural northwestern Bangladesh

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Over the past 30 years, tubewells have become a ubiquitous source of potable groundwater in South Asia. Considered safer than surface water, groundwater naturally contains minerals that may impact human health; however, few data exist on tubewell water mineral content or its association with human nutritional or health conditions. We surveyed iron concentration in tubewell water across a 435 km2, contiguous, rural area in northwestern Bangladesh to map and quantify levels of iron in drinking water. One tubewell was randomly sampled from each of 948 adjacent grid cells 675 m2 in size. Water sampling was standardized and iron concentration measured using a field-based colorimetric kit. The median (interquartile range) concentration of iron in tubewell water was 7.6 (1.6, 17.6) mg l−1. There was high geographic variation (range of 0–46.5 mg l−1), and iron in only 3% of surveyed tubewells fell below the WHO aesthetic cut-off of 0.3 mg l−1 suggesting elevated levels of iron throughout the area. Villagers accurately perceived groundwater iron concentration, based on a 4-point (‘none’, ‘a little’, ‘medium’, ‘a lot’) scale (p<0.001). Water source iron content can be readily quantified in population settings offering the potential to evaluate the health relevance of groundwater iron exposure in rural communities.

Keywords: Bangladesh, GIS, groundwater, iron, tubewell

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