Arsenic tragedy in Bangladesh

Almost 35 million people in Bangladesh are probably drinking well water that contains arsenic well over the accepted safe limit.  Why that is so is one of the greatest tragic ironies of our age.  In an attempt to reduce the incidence of gastrointestinal disease from drinking polluted surface water, the government, with assistance from international agencies, sank millions of tube wells from the 1970s onward.  The wells tapped abundant and seemingly clean groundwater from the alluvium beneath the Brahmaputra and Ganges plains.  Health problems dropped dramatically, especially among children.  But by 1983 a Calcutta dermatologist reported skin lesions on patients from neighbouring West Bengal in India that are a sure sign of arsenic poisoning.  Even though the British Geological Survey conducted a pilot survey of water chemistry in some Bangladeshi well waters in 1991, the danger from arsenic remained unknown; BGS did not test for the element, despite routinely analysing it in British groundwater.  Shortly after the report was published, typical symptoms of arsenic poisoning appeared from a wide tract of low-lying Bangladesh.  Dermatological symptoms generally only start to appear about 10 years after individuals are exposed to low, but dangerous levels of arsenic in water.  They are followed by a variety of cancers (of the skin, bladder, liver and kidneys) at around 20 years from the start of exposure.  A number of affected Bangladeshi people have taken legal action against BGS for negligence (see British Geological Survey sued over arsenic in EPN of October 2002).  However, on appeal against a legal decision to put their case to trial, Britain’s Natural Environment Research Council, of which BGS is a part, were judged to be too distant from the villagers to have had a duty of care.  The issue will not go away, and informing as many people as possible about the arsenic tragedy, its causes and possible remedies is vital.  This has been taken a step forward by a clear review article by a Bangladeshi health scientist, Mushtaque Chowdhury who co-chairs the UN Millennium Project’s task force on child and maternal health (Chowdhury, A.M.R. 2004.  Arsenic crisis in Bangladesh.  Scientific American, August 2004, p. 70-75).

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