Arsenic Poisoning in Bangladesh

SARID, September 08, 2004

By Jasmin Mehovic and Janaki Blum (,


The contamination of groundwater in Bangladesh is often called the biggest mass poisoning in history. It began in the 1970's, when the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) initiated the construction of millions of tube-wells with the aim of providing Bangladeshis with clean and safe drinking water - an alternative to the surface water contaminated with diarrhea-causing bacteria that killed a quarter of a million Bangladeshi children each year. But as the tube-wells eliminated one problem, they, in turn, brought about a new tragedy of unimagined proportions. Arsenic-contaminated water from the wells started poisoning millions, bewildering the scientists trying to understand how the poisoning works as well as how to control it. Meanwhile, the 8 to 12 million contaminated wells across the country continue to be the main source of water for most Bangladeshis, presenting a growing danger to their lives. The scope of the calamity has drawn worldwide concern and triggered a broad effort to remedy the problem.

Today, more than 30 million people in Bangladesh are affected by contaminated water. In West Bengal, the area across the border with India, “a minimum of six million people, including two million children belonging to nine out of the total 18 districts were drinking arsenic contaminated water, which contained arsenic of more than 50 ug/L,” notes professor M. Habibur Rahman of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (Bernama 2003). The victims show a number of symptoms, ranging from blackened fingernails, hair follicles, and white or black patches on the skin. Arsenic also inflicts serious damage to the lungs, liver, and kidneys while arsenic-related cancer causes nearly 3,000 deaths a year. Since the symptoms may appear as long as 10 years after someone starts drinking contaminated water, and because the arsenic does not affect everyone the same way, many cases of poisoning have gone unreported. Proper reporting is also hindered by the fact that the arsenic does not come only through the water, but through the food chain as well. Even those who manage to avoid contaminated water can be exposed to poisoning through ingesting rice, peas, wheat, and meat. However, the extent of arsenic contamination of food is still unknown. (Yoshida, Yamauchi, 2004; Meharg, Jardine 2003)

Scientists still differ on the origins of the arsenic in the water and on the way the poisoning works. Arsenic is widely distributed throughout the earth's crust and introduced into groundwater from arsenic-containing mineral ores by processes that are not fully understood. Researchers at Manchester University argue that such processes are triggered by a certain kind of bacteria, which, by reducing iron in the sediments release arsenic from earth, deposit it in the water supplies. A number of scientist linked arsenic level in water with "the green revolution" and its indiscriminate use of sub-standard chemicals since the early 1970s The increased use of fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides lead to still unknown effects on aquatic life, livestock and human health (Hosasin et al., 1994, Rasul et al., 2004., Paul & De, 2000). It is also believed that withdrawal of large quantities of water allows oxygen to enter the ground and starts geochemical changes that release arsenic from the pyrite in the soil. Although the mechanism is yet to be clearly identified, experts argue that "excessive use of groundwater is suspected to be on of the cause of the presence of high levels of arsenic in groundwater in in northern and northwestern parts of Bangladesh (Rasul and Thapa, 2004, Siddique et al, 1998, Ullah, 1998)

Scientists also offer different ways how to eliminate arsenic from the water. Those who lay the blame on pesticide contamination of soil call for restructuring Bangladesh’s agricultural policy and moving toward ecological agriculture. Others point to the need for immediate solution; the United States Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories, for instance, hopes to understand the origins of arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh using the knowledge gained by dealing with underground water contaminated by nuclear waste (Science a GoGo 2000). Naval Materials Research Laboratory (NMRL), Ambernath, Maharastra, India, works on a stainless steel filter that removes arsenic from polluted water, hoping to present the most cost-effective and easily made tool for arsenic treatment (FT 2004). A. Mushtaque R. Chowdhury of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee points out that time is the key factor in dealing with the situation. “Bangladesh can not afford to wait,” Chowdhury warns. As a suitable solution to the problem he presents “the three pitcher method” - a simple, cheap, small scale, and immediate way for providing safe water to impoverished Bangladeshi. Unfortunately, deposing the contaminated sludge is a problem that is still to be solved, he admits.

Whichever way of coping with the problem prevails, it is clear that even the least expensive one will be a great burden for this cash-strapped country. Bangladesh, with a per capita income of $370 a year, is one of the poorest countries in the world, where malnutrition and deaths of women from childbirth are of drastic proportions. The World Bank announced in August that it would provide $30 million dollars in aid to Bangladesh to combat the water contamination. Nonetheless, the money is need not only for water purification but also for providing health services to those affected by the poisoning. The World Bank says more than 60% of Bangladeshis, or about 80 million people, have no access to modern health services. The Bangladeshi government says it plans to open 13,000 community clinics around the country but there are few doctors to staff them an it is still unclear how they will be funded on the long run.

Critics points out that despite its financial difficulties the Bangladeshi government could do far more to tackle the crisis. The findings of a study carried out by Calcutta University points to a widespread negligence in monitoring the arsenic test kits used in the country. "Millions of dollars are being spent without scientific validation of the field kits," argues Dipankar Chakraborti, one of the leading South Asian experts on arsenic poisoning (Pearce, Hecht 2002). The Bangladeshi Government is also criticized for lowering the water safety level to 50 parts per million, despite the World Health Organization's recommendation that contamination levels should not exceed 10 parts per million. Nevertheless, the most criticism goes to its inability to engage itself in developing and delivering awareness among the general public about the arsenic peril, such as the signs and symptoms of poisoning. These programs, experts argue, should be especially directed toward people in low and medium arsenic risk regions, with a particular attention to villagers with little or no education, the poor, the elderly, and women (Bimal Kanti Paul 2004).

The lessons learned from the Bangladeshi crisis points not only to the need of better organization and cooperation among the local authorities, but also among the NGO’s themselves. There is an increasing consensus that the crisis in Bangladesh might have been avoided if there was a better cooperation between different NGOs. Deepak Bajracharia, a Bangladeshi activist, argues that “the gravity of the problem was not recognized as well as it should, or could, have been” (BBC 1998). When the nation's tube wells were first being drilled, the well water was tested for bacteria but not metals: A study published in the Lancet Journal in 1976 that called into question the effectiveness of wells in addressing the nation's diarrhea problem was ignored by the aid groups drilling the wells. These groups, along with the government departments in Bangladesh and four international organizations are now facing legal proceedings for allegedly failing to protect the population. Although the NGOs have dramatically increased their role in bringing concerns related to risk management on to the international stage, they still have not clearly defined their roles in linking disaster management priorities (Matin & Taher, 2001).

The incentive for swift and coordinated effort also lies in the fact that the arsenic problem is not limited only to Bangladesh and the adjoining areas of India. Vietnam is also facing its own arsenic crisis. Michael Berg of the Swiss Federal Institute for Environmental Science in Duebendorf notes that groundwater from tube wells sunk beneath the Red river delta, home to 11 million people, contain arsenic levels up to 300 times the WHO safe limit. According to Jack Ng of the University of Queensland, Australia, there are 17 countries around the world, including India, Bhutan, China, Vietnam, and the US, where communities are failing to meet the limits of the arsenic in water set up by the World Health Organization (Pearce 2003). Some of them have been drinking arsenic-contaminated groundwater for up to 20 years. Experts further warns that as many as 50 million people worldwide could be severely affected in years to come. Arsenic in drinking water, warns A. Mushtaque Chowdhury, “thus constitutes the largest case of mass poisoning in history, dwarfing Chernobyl (Chowdhury 2004).”

It is clear that there is a need for an urgent reassessment of the situation in Bangladesh. However, the discussion should not be focused on the search for the culprit, whether it is UNICEF, World Bank, the Bangladeshi government, or public health scientists who did not think to test the water in time. Not only will no one admit culpability, but no entity alone could improve the situation. Instead, the energy should be focused on building of an effective mechanism for interaction between governmental and nongovernmental organizations and research communities in addressing the problem. Such a mechanism, involving data sharing and coordinated action, will significantly accelerate the search for an antidote to the contamination, for improved healthcare for the afflicted, and for a better assessment of arsenic poisoning on the global scale. It would prepare the NGOs for long term planning and dealing not only with the arsenic crisis, but also with any future disasters that could take place in the world.

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