Nearly half of the world's urban population depends on aquifers for drinking water. These are increasingly vulnerable to pollution and overexploitation. Besides anthropogenic sources, pollutants such as arsenic (As) are also geogenic and their concentrations have, in some cases, been increased by groundwater pumping. Almost 40 % of Mexico's population relies on groundwater for drinking water purposes; much the aquifers in semi-arid and arid central and northern Mexico is contaminated by As. These are agricultural regions where irrigation water is primarily provided from intenstive pumping of the aquifers leading to long-standing declines in the water table. The focus of this study is the main aquifer within the Comarca Lagunera region in Northern Mexico. Although the scientific evidence demonstrates that health effects are associated with long-term exposure to elevated As concentrations, this knowledge has not yielded effective groundwater development and public health policy. A multidisciplinary approach - including the evaluation of geochemistry, human health risk and development and public health policy - was used to provide a current account of these links. The dissolved As concentrations measured exceeded the corresponding World Health Organization guideline for drinking water in 90 % of the sampled wells; for the population drinking this water, the estimated probability of presenting non-carcinogenic health effects was >90 %, and the lifetime risk of developing cancer ranged from 0.5 to 61 cases in 10,000 children and 0.2 to 33 cases in 10,000 adults. The results suggest that insufficient policy responses are due to a complex and dysfunctional groundwater governance framework that compromises the economic, social and environmental sustainability of this region. These findings may valuable to other regions with similar settings that need to design and enact better informed, science-based policies that recognize the value of a more sustainable use of groundwater resources and a healthier population.
Keywords: Aquifer overexploitation; Arsenic; Comarca Lagunera region; Health risk assessment; Mexico; Public policy.
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