No specific research exists on how arsenic has affected health in Serbia’s Vojvodina province, the part of the country that lies on the Pannonian Basin sweeping north from the Danube river. There are likewise no studies for eastern Croatia. But a 2012 study in Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, conducted under the EU Arsenic Health Risk Assessment and Molecular Epidemiology programme led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, found strong evidence of an association between long-term, low-level exposure to arsenic in drinking water and Basal Cell Carcinoma, the most frequent form of skin cancer. That was true even at levels moderately above the 10 µg/L legal limit. Local media in Hungary have since reported that 300 deaths in the country each year are linked to long-term exposure to arsenic-tainted drinking water. Reports cited research from Hungary’s National Public Health and Medical Officer Service, ANTSZ.
Martha Varga, director of the water department at the Public Health Institute, which is a part of ANTSZ, declined to confirm the figure. But Gergely Simon, a toxicologist at environmental group Greenpeace in Budapest, said there was cause for alarm. “Of course people should be concerned, because arsenic has a long-term effect,” he told us. “Obviously, many deaths will still occur due to arsenic exposure.”
In Serbia, we mapped arsenic levels higher than 10 µg/L across the whole of Vojvodina province, using data obtained through 41 freedom-of-information requests to local water companies and offices of public health. The data was collected between January and October 2017. The investigation revealed that 95 cities, towns and villages in Vojvodina — with a combined population of 630,000 — are in the danger zone. They are all served by water plants lacking the technology to filter arsenic from groundwater.
Water is safe to drink in Novi Sad, the capital of Vojvodina and Serbia’s second-largest city. But the central city of Zrenjanin, population 77,000, is among the worst hotspots, with arsenic readings up to 194 µg/L over the past year. Subotica, a city of 106,000 near the Hungarian border, has levels up to 99 µg/L in places, although the local public health office says 80 per cent of residents have clean water thanks to a purification plant built in 1991. The Vojvodina provincial inspectorate for water safety did not respond to questions about which authorities have or have not banned drinking water. The most alarming results came from the central Vojvodina town of Novi Bečej, where 13,100 people are exposed to water with arsenic levels up to 273 µg/L.
Although that is more than 27 times the legal limit, authorities have not issued a ban on drinking tap water. “The water was proclaimed ‘technical water’ 10 years ago,” said Mayor Sasa Maksimović, meaning that it is only deemed suitable for industrial use. But few residents interviewed knew it was dangerous to drink, and the website of the local water utility, Komunalac, makes no mention of any risks. Komunalac did not respond to questions. “Most people, certainly 90 per cent, drink water from the tap and that’s how it’s going to be as long as an official statement banning the water is not issued,” said Nevena Subotić, an opposition member of Novi Bečej’s parliament.
Nemanja Vasković, owner of a bar and restaurant on the bank of the Tisa river in Novi Bečej, buys bottled water for his family, but only because he detests the tap water’s yellow tint and off-putting smell. Some locals describe it as “pond-like”. “I don’t know how high arsenic levels are, but I know that water is bad,” Vasković said. He estimated that he pays at least 30 euros a month for bottled water. The average monthly net wage in Novi Bečej last year was around 283 euros, according to Serbia’s Department for Statistics. “I’d reckon that 75 per cent of people in Novi Becej can’t afford bottled water,” Vasković said.