Fluoride occurrence in the lower East African Rift System, Southern Malawi

Marc J. Addison, Michael O. Rivett, Helen Robinson, Aimee Fraser, Alexandra M. Miller, Peaches Phiri, Prince Mleta, Robert M. Kalin

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Countries located on the East African Rift System (EARS) are vulnerable to fluoride in their groundwater; a vulnerability for the developing country of Malawi at the southern rift periphery that is not well characterised. Groundwater fluoride occurrence in Malawi is documented here to better understand and manage fluoride risks posed. Available literature and Gov't of Malawi archive fluoride data spanning some fifty years have been collated and augmented by our own 2016–18 surveys of groundwater quality in Southern Malawi, targeting deep-sourced springs. In total, fluoride data for 1365 borehole, spring and hot spring samples were assembled. Statistically, 83% of samples were below the 1.5 mg/l WHO limit, concentrations in the 1.5–6 mg/l range between former (pre-1993) and current WHO guidelines at 14%, and those with fluoride above the current Malawi (former WHO) 6 mg/l guideline, at 3%. A lower occurrence than in other zones of the EARS, but indicative of a need for a Malawi Gov't management policy revision and associated management strategies endorsed by several documented incidences of dental fluorosis in proximity to high fluoride groundwater. Increased fluoride is related to increased groundwater temperatures signifying the importance of geothermal groundwater provenance. Temperature data may indeed be used as a proxy indicator of fluoride risk; samples with a temperature >32 °C, contained >6 mg/l fluoride. Structural geological controls appear to allow deep geothermal groundwaters to come to the near surface, as evidenced by increased fluoride in springs and boreholes close to faulted areas. Hydrochemical evaluation shows that fluoride concentrations are influenced by fluorite equilibration and sensitivity to calcium and pH. Recommendations are made to further document the occurrence of fluoride and enhance management of risks due to fluoride in drinking water in Malawi. With fluoride as a key indicator within Sustainable Development Goal number 6, the current Malawi standard and waters with concentration between 1.5 and 6 mg/l will come under increased scrutiny and pose a key challenge to assessment and management efforts.

Original languageEnglish
Article number136260
Number of pages16
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Early online date26 Dec 2019
Publication statusPublished - 10 Apr 2020


  • East African Rift System
  • fluoride
  • groundwater
  • Malawi


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