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The Daily Star Internet Edition Articles

Thanks to JK at DS for supplying these to the west bengal & bangladesh arsenic crisis information centre.

All articles (c) The Daily Star. Reprinted with permission.

Contents - latest articles first. Covers the period 17 Jul 97 to 20 Dec 97.

December 20, 1997

Team in Pabna to detect arsenic contamination

PABNA, Dec 19: A high-powered team led by Dr Bakar N Kabir of the World Bank today visited Hatigara village under Bera Pourasava of Pabna district to conduct survey on arsenic contamination in tubewell waters.

The team will conduct similar survey in 203 villages under 50 thanas of 23 districts as part of its three-month-long programme.

During today's visit, the team members made on the spot test and found arsenic contamination in tubewell waters of different houses.

Arsenic contamination in tubewell waters of this village was detected six months back after conducting a primary test jointly by Dhaka Community Hospital, Public Health Engineering Department and Directorate of Health.

Several persons with skin diseases caused by drinking arsenic polluted water were also found in the village.

While talking to The Daily Star, the team leader Dr Bakar N Kabir disclosed that tubewell waters in many unions and villages under Bera thana are found containing arsenic within permissible level.

The other members of the team were Dr Deepak Battacharya, Chief of Water and Sanitation Section of UNICEF; Mike McCarthy, First Secretary, Engineering Adviser, DFID, British High Commission; Mofazzal Haque, National Field Programme Officer, WHO; Zahirul Haque, Superintending Engineer, Department of Public Health Engineering, Rajshahi; Miss Lamia Karim, Raice University, America; GB Sarkar, Senior chemist, WHO; Abdus Sattar, chemist, Department of Public Health Engineering and Prof Quazi Kamruzzaman, Chairman of Dhaka Community Hospital.

November 21, 1997
Which is safe - ground or surface water?

By Naimul Haq

Experts are divided over the use of surface water or groundwater as an immediate solution to the problem of arsenic contamination of groundwater in the country.

Some experts feel that surface water is safe for those exposed to arsenic contamination while others maintain that use of surface water could be harmful and suggested continued use of groundwater for drinking and cooking "till something concrete is recommended."

Dr Dipankar Chakrabarti, an expert from India, said, "immediate advice should be given to revert to the habit of using surface water for drinking and cooking purposes." Dr Chakrabarti has been studying environmental effect of wide-spread contamination of grou-ndwater by arsenic in Bang-ladesh and West Bengal since 1984.

Talking to this correspondent in the city recently, he said, "For a short term solution, there are basically two options - use of deep tubewell (DTW) water or conservation of rain and river water. Installation of each DTW costs between Tk 40,000 and 50,000 which is costly for ordinary villagers. Conservation of rain and river water till now seems to be the most suitable choice that should be acceptable in terms of expenditure."

Dr Mahmudur Rahman, a leading dermatologist of the country also working in this field, said, ''The nature is taking revenge on us. Twenty years ago, the concept of using groundwater was accepted without thinking of its impact today. It is now high time we should properly utilise nature's gift.'"As there is no scientific explanation for what exactly causes the disease (Arsinicosis), we should really give it a second thought before continuing to use groundwater resources."

He further said, "Let the underground water level rise, allowing time. The more we pump out water, the deeper we have to reach underground, raising the possibility of contamination by other minerals that could be equally toxic. Who knows what is happening underground. So, the safest and easiest approach to the crisis is shifting back to the habit of using surface water - pond, canal and river water.

He pointed out that diarrhoea is not a water borne disease, only cholera is. "So, if they (other experts) say it will involve the risk of diarrhoeal epidemic if villagers are asked to use surface water again, I would say, they are wrong."

While talking to The Daily Star on Monday, Director General of Health Services Prof A K M Nurul Anwar said, "We are not going to consider options for use of surface water for immediate solution to the problem. We are going to wait until something concrete is recommended."Referring to the research carried out by the National Institute of Preventive and Social Medicine (NIPSOM) over the years, Prof Anwar said, "In the meantime, we have developed a chemical powder packet that guarantees removal of 90 per cent arsenic minerals from contaminated water if used properly. It is already being distributed and widely recognised."

Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation (WHO), at its New Delhi Regional Consultation this year, recommended alternative use of surface water.

The WB and UNICEF are not very interested to recommend such a shift so quickly as they see possibility of even greater impact. "It's too early to advise such a plan which may have complete wrong implications other than the good side of it," said Babar N Kabir, Chief of WB's Water and Sanitation Programme.

Arsenic concentration in groundwater above normal level, first identified back in 1993 by testing tubewell water, was alarming in some parts of the country. The first detection and subsequent confirmation in 1995 of high level arsenic concentration in many hand-pumped tubewells raised serious health concern. Primary inves-tigations reveal that tubewell water in 60 districts out of the 64 is more or less contaminated with arsenic, exceeding WHO's permissible limit of 0.05 milligram per liter (mg/L). A joint survey by the School of Environment Studies of West Bengal's Jadavpur University and Dhaka Community Hospital (DCH), analysing over 6000 water samples taken from 41 districts showed that 45 per cent of the samples contained arsenic more than the WHO-recommended value.

November 14, 1997

'Arsenic found in 3060 tubewells out of 16651'

LGRD and Cooperatives Minister Zillur Rahman yesterday informed the Jatiya Sangsad that arsenic was found in 3060 tubewells out of a total 16651 tubewells tested across the country by the Department of Public Health Engineering, reports BSS.

The minister was replying to a question from Awami League member Kazi Sekander Ali.

He said a study project was carried out with the support of UNICEF to investigate and examine the causes of arsenic in underground water.

He said under the project, test tubewells were sunk for investigating arsenic contamination in water. Water was being tested through field test kit under the project, he added.

Besides, he said, another extensive study project was going to begin soon with the assistance from the British Geological Society. He also informed the Jatiya Sangsad, that an investment project would be undertaken very soon in this connection. contents

November 12, 1997

Arsenic pollution spreading fast

Arsenic pollution has been spreading in the districts of Pabna and Jessore very fast.

Our Pabna Correspondent says: Arsenic pollution has been spreading in different thanas of Pabna district. Very recently, it was detected in Pabna pourasabha. Several patients have been affected by drinking arsenic polluted water from a number of tubewells.

The Civil Surgeon of Pabna disclosed this recently while talking to The Daily Star correspondent recently.

The Civil Surgeon further said that already four thanas out of nine in Pabna district have been affected by arsenic pollution. These are: Pabna Sadar, Ishurdi, Bera and Santhia.

The Civil Surgeon further disclosed that during the year 1997, at least 11 persons died and 200 others attacked with various incurable diseases caused by drinking arsenic polluted tubewell water. Out of the total 200 patients, 40 were under treatment in different hospitals.

The Civil Surgeon stated out of 11 dead victims, four belonged to the same family and all of them hailed from Paksey Paper Mills area under Ishurdi thana.

The dead victims are: Fazlu, 34, son of Mozibar Rahman, Baby, 25, wife of late Fazlur, Kanak, 12, son of late Fazlu and Jahan Ara Begum, 25, daughter of Mujibar Rahman. They belong to the same family and residents of village Nalgari adjacent to North Bengal Paper Mills, Paksey.

Besides, Tara Banoo, 26, wife of Moksed Ali, 45, son of Fakir Ali, Tashima Begum, 28, wife of Atiar Rahman, Abul Hossain, 25, of village Beelkada, Hamid Ali, 50, Hasi Begum, 15, and Moslem Uddin Bhegal, 35, of Char Ruppur under Paksey union of Ishurdi thana also fell victims.

Water of those tubewells contained arsenic above 0.05 mg per litre as against the safe quantum of 0.001 mg per litre.

The Civil Surgeon stated that recently, during the month of October, four patients were attacked with diseases caused by arsenic pollution. They were detected from Arifpur and Salgaria areas - both under the Pabna pourasabha. The patients were: Jahan Ara Begum, 35, wife of Imran Ali, Hazera Parveen, 15, daughter of Imran Ali Joarder and Bilquis, 10, daughter of Said Imran Ali of Arifpur. Besides, one Masud Rana, 25, son of Kamiruddin of Salgaria under Pabna pourasabha was also found to have been attacked with diseases caused by arsenic pollution.

In Ishurdi thana health complex, according to the same source, 32 patients of arsenic pollution related diseases were being treated. All of them were inhabitants of villages surrounding the North Bengal Paper Mills of Paksey. Out of them, 17 hailed from village Beelkada, 12 from village Char Ruppur and three from Paksey railway colony.

The Civil Surgeon expressed his apprehension that excessive arsenic pollution in the water of tubewells surrounding the North Bengal Paper Mills might have been caused due to waste of the mills.

Meanwhile, NIPSOM and Public Health Engineering Department have tested samples of water from over 200 tubewells, out of which 30 tubewells were found to contain arsenic above the standard level and all these tubewells were already sealed by PHED.

Meanwhile, doctors in Pabna have expressed doubts that arsenic pollution might spread to the other thanas of the district but no agency has yet come forward to test of tubewell water in the remaining thanas.

Our Jessore Correspondent says: 4,000 people out of 5,000 villagers of Samta village under Sharsha thana in the district are suffering from diseases, caused by arsenic pollution in drinking water for the last 10 years.

The number of affected people is increasing following its steady extension to new areas.

Failure by the Public Health Engineering Department (PHED) to control arsenic, is worsening the situation.

According to statistical report, 15 people of the village have already died of disease caused by arsenic pollution. They include Yusuf, Daud, Hossain Nahar, Osman, Lalan, Ansar, Satter Sonabhan, Meherunnesa, Ayub, Shamsu, and Hosen.

According to another report 33 are awaiting the tragic end of their life in the same village.

They are Liton, Sona, Amirul, Habibor, Sahidul, Abdul Sorder, Aklima Jahanara, Jobed Ali, Monzurul Huq, Sakhina, Siraj, Rahima, Achia, Abdul Aziz, Selim Reza, Yasmin Rabeya, Jinnat Ali, Safura, Runa Tuhin, Unus, Arjina, Asadul, Zia, Anisur, Anwar, Azizur, Rabiul, Sahida, Moslem, Rokeya and Nuruzzaman.

Acting on a media report, a 20-member team of specialists on arsenic, poisoning, from Japan came on a survey to this village on October 10 last. Not to speak of Samta, presence of arsenic was found in the drinking water of other neighbouring villages during the survey.

Dr Dipankar Chakravarty of Jadabpur University collected nails, skin and urine of 334 people of the villages for examination. During examination it has been found that 95 per cent of the nails contain arsenic poison. 97 per cent have been found containing the arsenic germs by testing urine of 301 people. 256 tubewells out of 279, have also been detected containing arsenic and users have been advised to boycott water of those tubewells. NIPSOM has already distributed water purifying tablets among 248 families.

It is reported, a number of NGOs are working at this village, but so far they could not play any effective role to bring change the growth of arsenic. Lack of water-testing laboratory in the area, in deepening the crisis.

PHED has found out layer in under ground water containing low-percentage of arsenic. It is within acceptable limit. The acceptable limit of arsenic is 0.05 mili gram while presence of arsenic in this area is 1.0 mg to 3.0 mg.

Arsenic leads to pigmentation of skin, keratosis, anaemia, respiratory disorders, hepatitis, pain in abdomen and, ultimately causing cancer.

According to a source, arsenic problem is restricted to Jessore, Kushtia, Chuadanga, Meherpur, Bagerhat and Khulna districts falling in the delta region. It also goes beyond West Bengal also.

If tubewells are sunk in this village in massive quantity and the layer goes below 700 feet the danger of arsenic may be avoided and people can be supplied arsenic free water.

When contacted the local member of the parliament Tabibur Rahman Sarder, urged the government to install at least 100 deep tubewells in the village to save the people from arsenic. contents

November 10, 1997
Arsenic affected Chandpur - Villagers don't know what to do next

By Naimul Haq, back from Chandpur

People of most of the villages in Chandpur district are worried over use of tubewell water as they have been warned in widely publicised TV documentaries not to drink tubewell water.

The implications are both good and bad. The good effect is that villagers are giving up the habit of using tubewell water for fear of developing arsenic-related diseases. The bad effect is misuse of water resources due to certain misconceptions.

Chandpur is among the five districts in the country severely affected by arsenic contamination of groundwater. A preliminary survey by the Department of Public Health and Engineering (DPHE) showed that water of about 40 per cent of the tubewells tested so far in Chandpur contained arsenic and 83 per cent of those 40 per cent had concentration of arsenic above the permissible level of 0.05 mg per litre, according to sources in the DPHE. On an average, there are about 30 tubewells in a village in the district.

But no arsenic contamination was found in deep tubewell water, the sources said.

During a recent tour of the district, this correspondent found that villagers are well aware of the death of one Parimal Chandra Majumdar of Shahapur village in Hajiganj thana from suspected arsenic-related cancer. The news of his death from the disease spread beyond the district, upto neighbouring Comilla.

Ever since the death of Parimal, people in Chandpur are concerned over the unfamiliar disease.

This correspondent visited a house in Nijmehar village to see an affected person but could not meet her.

"My daughter always avoids appearing in public" her mother said. "She goes to school covering herself to make sure no one sees the skin lesions she has developed during the past six years. She has virtually isolated herself," the mother said.

Thana Nirbahi Officer of Shahrasti Md Zafar Siddiq while talking to this correspondent said, "People are asking all sorts of questions but we have no reply as we have no knowledge of the problem. The villagers want to know what is the solution if they can not use tubewell water and what happens when anybody develops arsenic poisoning."

The TNO said, "People know about the disease. They are afraid of it. But they don't know what to do. This is what actually worries us."

After the DPHE survey, the local administration took steps to warn the people about the effects of arsenic contamination of groundwater. Consequently, most of the people are giving up the habit of using tubewell water.

The Unicef and the DPHE, through use of 'field test kits' have helped the villagers identify sources of safe tubewell water. But the real problem is the communication gap. People are in confusion what to do. Even officials in Thana Health Complexes are unable to give proper advice.

Ruhul Amin who is also affected by the disease said, "We have stopped using water from our tubewell and are using water from another tubewell nearby. But what is to be done next? I have heard that there is no care for the disease, is it true?" contents

November 10, 1997
Editorial: A Truly Good Turn

A dependable headway has been made in solving the problem of arsenic contamination of ground water affecting almost a large part of our population. The World Bank will co-ordinate a two-year study to identify the causes of the contamination. Funded wholly by the British Department for International Development, this 800,000-dollar project comes in the nick of time to plug a big hole in Bangladesh's efforts to fight the arsenic threat to both life and society. Without identifying the physical agents and processes of the contamination, any action programme to minimise the danger must be founded on quagmire.

This is not to say that the great work put in by the Dhaka Community Hospital in identifying the affected patients in the districts and offering them mitigation of pain and suffering is in any way less important. The World Bank study would take two years and action based on that may take another two. In the meantime more and more people in more and more areas will continue to be affected by arsenic in drinking water. As long as the contamination process is not stopped once for all hopefully in next five years' time, what will happen to the thousands of victims? And who will monitor the situation and enforce closure of contaminated tubewells and motivate people in looking for alternative sources of potable water?

The answer that comes pat to mind is government. We have no doubt government. Particularly the Public Health Engineering Department is taken up with the job and some field work done by them has been useful. But the approach so far has been to minimise the danger and act as if they wouldn't unless forced to.

Why is this so? If it is a big threat born of natural processes, why should government want it to look small? The World Bank took the all important step to investigate the causes and the money for that comes from Britain. Why didn't our government do this all? And if the WB initiative would not be forthcoming right at this time, which is already quit late, would the government sit snugly without going for the study? contents 

November 9, 1997

WB project to study origin of arsenic contamination

By Naimul Haq
An 800,000 US dollar project has been taken up to carry out geological, hydrogeological and geotechnical studies on the origin of arsenic contamination of ground water in the country, official sources said.

The World Bank is coordinating the project funded by the British Department for International Development. The studies will be conducted by the British Geological Survey (BGS).

"It would be a two-year programme consisting of two phases. The mission of the project, scheduled to start by the last week of this month, is to find out where from arsenic is coming. The proposed research programme would be carried out in collaboration with Bangladesh Water Development Board's Ground Water Circle, Geological Survey of Bangladesh, DPHE and Dhaka and Rajshahi universities," said Babar N Kabir, Chief of WB's Water and Sanitation Programme at its Dhaka office.

There are two phases of the research project. The first one would involve a six-month initial assessment of the cause and extent of the problem and would help the government and the WB in formulating auxiliary projects for the second year of the 60 million dollar 'umbrella investment programme.' The second phase would provide additional information to verify the source and mechanism of mobilisation of arsenic.

The studies will help determine the feasibility of certain possible long-term mitigation measures such as use of deep tubewells and the effect of continued use of uncontaminated wells.

The field level data collection will involve drilling of wells in 30 districts up to a depth of about 300 metres for sediment analysis. Accordingly, evaluation map would be prepared to give first-hand information for any reference during the implementation of the proposed project.

"An engineer from UK is already in the city to evaluate the content of the project," Kabir said.

Four people died of arsenic-related cancer and about 2,000 were reported to have been affected following use of tubewell water contaminated by arsenic in ground water in the country. Preliminary statistics, verified by Department of Public Health and Engineering (DPHE), Unicef and Dhaka Community Hospital, which is now working at field level to investigate 'patient identification,' showed alarming pictures. This prompted the World Bank to initiate programmes for immediate collection of information to support implementation of long-term plans already designed.

Meanwhile, an initial assessment by the BGS concluded that the extent of arsenic contamination in the country is 'potentially very large.' contents

November 2, 1997

2027 arsenic patients in country

Some 2,027 people have been identified as arsenic patients and about 65 million are at risk of contamination with the poisonous substance across the country, reports UNB.

Four of the arsenic patients have so far died, two from arsenic-related cancer, according to a survey conducted in 23 districts of the country.

This was disclosed at a press conference in the city organised by Dhaka Community Hospital Trust yesterday.

Trustee Chairman Dr Quazi Quamruzzaman, Arsenic Specialist of Jadabpur University in Calcutta Dr Dipankar Chakrabarty and Dr Saifur Islam spoke at the conference.  contents

Pilot project in 200 villages to fight arsenic contamination by Naimul Huq

An emergency government programme will be launched Thursday to provide safe drinking water to the people of 200 of the villages worst affected by arsenic contamination of ground water, according to official sources.

The programme will cover areas in 22 south-western districts including Khulna, Bagerhat, Jessore and Kushtia and some parts of Narayanganj, Narsingdi, Comilla and Chandpur where people have been identified with "symptoms of chronic arsenic poisoning."

The programme will serve as a model one, and based on its experience, a long-term programme will be formulated to address the "national disaster", declared by the government in May. The 307,912 US dollar six-month programme, financed by the UNDP, will be implemented jointly by the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health (DOEH) and National Institute of Prevention and Social Medicine (NIPSOM) with the help of the Health Directorate, Dhaka Community Hospital local NGOs.

Talking to The Daily Star Project Director Dr AZM Iftikhar Hussain said, "There are about 1800 confirmed cases of arsenicosis across the country and a large number of people in at least 60 districts are in the risk of being contaminated. It is a very sensitive issue. One should not panic but understand the problem."

He said arsinocosis causes malonosis - a term used to describe soaring of skin surface and mucous membrane. The ultimate result is tissue mutation which may cause cancer, but not in all cases.

"As a matter of fact, arsinocosis starts long before it is actually visible on the skin. It affects other organs of the body before finally appearing on the skin. There is no treatment for such chronic disease but it can be prevented by not using the contaminated water.

"Any successful result will depend on the feedback from multiple sources. The most severe case so far detected is in Samta village of Jessore district where an arsenic concentration of little over one milligram per liter (mg/1) was found. In fact, arsenic concentration above 0.05 mg/1 is considered harmful."

"There is no device to free water from arsenic. If there was any way of arsenic combustion with other molecules in water, the problem would have greatly been removed," he explained. "But now we are recommending diet rich in vitamin A, B and E which may prevent arsenic poisoning on the skin. Extensive research will be conducted by collecting biopsies of the skin, hair, nail and other tissues to find what actually causes the poisoning."

Arsenic contamination of ground water was first detected in the country in August last year following confirmation of investigations of water samples at Jadavpur University in Calcutta, India. The university's Director of School of Environmental Studies, Dr Dipankar Chakraborti, who is now in the city told this correspondent yesterday, "The government should immediately regulate the use of all deep and shallow tubewells which are causing widespread contamination of arsenic in the villages. Limited use of ground water will significantly help check the problem."

The programme will include door-to-door survey to find out affected people and testing of all sources of water, hand tubewells, irrigation wells, ponds and dug-wells. Tubewells supplying arsenic contaminated water will be painted in red to identify those as 'unsafe' while those showing no traces of arsenic would be painted in green to indicate 'safe' source of water. Health camps will be set up and patients will be advised. An information database will be compiled. People will be trained and given chemical packets/filters. Fifteen teams, each comprising three groups, will work in the areas.

The water samples collected from the areas will be tested in the four laboratories of the Department of Public Health and Engineering (DPHE). The Atomic Energy Commission will be responsible for the test. contents

October 28, 1997

Arsenic contamination detected in ground water of Rajoir

MADARIPUR, Oct 20: Panic gripped over the Rajoir thana of the district as arsenic contamination has been detected in ground water, reports UNB.

Local people informed that eight people, including five women, of Hridoy Nandi Adarsha village in the thana have been affected by arsenic contamination.

They are - Zarina Begum, 25, Mahfuza Begum, 30, Akram Hossain, 22, Helena Begum, 30, Sufia Begum, 30, Merukjan Bibi, 40, and Sheron Sheikh 25.

Condition of Mahfuza Begum is stated to be critical. Her hands and legs have been affected by something like gangrene.

Meanwhile, a local NGO sent blood samples of many people to a laboratory to test arsenic contamination.

People here alleged that Public Health Engineering Department did not take any step in this matter and even they did not come to the thana to see the condition of the affected people.

While contacted the Executive Engineer of the PHED told that he did not get any information about the arsenic contamination in Rajoir thana. But he did not rule out the possibility of arsenic contamination.

He also said arsenic contamination was detected in ground water after examining tubewell water from every unions in Sadar thana. But they could not identify the level of arsenic contamination in the water or to which extent it is injurious to human body due to shortage of necessary appliances and tools.

Meanwhile, people have been advised to use tubewell water for their household purpose after boiling properly. contents

Interview: 'Enough Food does Not Ensure Food for all' Dr. Mahabub Hossain, who served as director general of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) during 1989-92, is now head of Social Sciences Division at the Manila-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

He needs no introduction even on the global plain when it come to his area - agriculture.

A Visiting Scientist at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Washington D.C. during 1985-87, he provided consultancy services on many occasions to various international organisations including the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, International Labour Organisation, Food and Agricultural Organisation and European Economic Commission.

Author of a number of books, highly commended and widely circulated, Dr. Hossain is read by agricultural researchers and scholars throughout the world. Green Revolution in Bangladesh: Impact on Growth and Income distribution, Evaluation of the Grameen Bank, Development Impact of Rural Infrastructure, Rethinking Rural Poverty, Rice research in Asia: Progress and Priorities, Asian Rice Bowls: A Returning Crisis are just to name a few. His book on Grameen Bank has been on high demand and reprinted six times. Strategy of Development in Bangladesh, (co-author) is taught as a text book in many universities. And there are more than 100 articles in the highly acclaimed journals to his credit.

As the Advisor to the Agriculture Commission of Bangladesh, Dr. Mahabub Hossain is now on a short visit to Dhaka. Dr Fahmida Akter, a BIDS researcher, spoke to him on behalf of The Daily Star . Excerpts follow: [only the question relating to groundwater exploitation is included here]

DS: Arsenic problem is thought to be the result of the use of shallow tube wells for irrigation. If that is so, then don't you think that we have to review our irrigation policy?

MH: I have not seen any study which really links the arsenic problem with ground water use through shallow tubewells. Farmers are now setting tubewells at deeper levels, which is an indication of the fact that they are not getting as much water as they used to get earlier. Since we use chemicals for agricultural production, some of those chemicals might also seep through recharge if the ground water level goes down. This might lead to deterioration in the water quality. If that happens there could be other harmful toxic than arsenic. We should investigate this before we come to any conclusion. But I agree with you that we have probably come to a saturation level of the safe exploitation of ground water. There might be severe environmental problems. As we depend on wells for drinking water, there is a danger of severe health problem. We must rethink about the use of water. May be we could think of finding ways to hold the surface water during wet season through pumping from small channels and rivers for irrigation in the dry season. contents

September 26, 1997

Arsenic detected in ground water in Rajshahi

RAJSHAHI, Sept 21: Arsenic was detected in ground water in the city. About 0.18 mg per litre arsenic was measured in ground water of Mahishbathan in the city against the normal highest acceptable limit of 0.05 mg per litre, local Public Health Engineering Department (PHED), sources said.

They measured it recently when a victim of arsenic Mohammad Mohadesh, 35, poisoning was detected on Sept 4. This is the first case of arsenic poisoning in the city area. About a year before arsenic was found in ground water in the district at many places outside the city. Chapainawabganj area, adjacent to the district of Rajshahi is an endemic area of arsenic poisoning. contents

Arsenic detected in water in Jhalakati JHALAKATI, Sept 26 : High level arsenic contamination was found in waters of four shallow tubewells in the district, according to a report of Public Health Engineering Department, reports UNB.

The report reached here from the Khulna PHED regional laboratory showed that water of four shallow tubewells in Nalchhiti, sadar and Rajapur thanas contained arsenic above the acceptable level of 0.01 milligram. Water samples from 12 shallow tubewells and one deep-tubewell of these thanas were sent to the Khulna laboratory a few months back. contents

July 27, 1997
ECOSOC for high attention to arsenic problem

A UN body at a substantive session recommended that close attention be given to the seriousness of arsenic contamination of drinking water supplies, reports UNB. The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the United Nations in its session in Geneva from June 30 to July 25 also advised high attention to adverse effects of persistent organic pollutants upon water and disposal of toxic substances. Delegations at the ECOSOC meet made this recommendation in its agreed conclusions on the coordination of policies and activities of the specialised agencies and relevant bodies of the UN system related to fresh water, including clean and safe water supply and sanitation. Bangladesh highlighted the issue of arsenic contamination at the ECOSOC for support of the UN system in addressing this major problem facing the country. In his statement in the ECOSOC session, Ambassador Anwarul Karim Chowdhury, Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the UN and leader of the Bangladesh delegation, highlighted the adverse effects of arsenic contamination of drinking water in Bangladesh. The UN body also strongly endorsed that people living in poverty should be ensured microcredit to generate self-employment and contribute to empowerment specially of women. It also emphasised strengthening of institutions supportive of microcredit. contents

July 26, 1997

Contamination of arsenic in water of Kurigram

KURIGRAM, July 23: Arsenic contamination has been found in six tubewell waters out of 10 of Rajarhat thana at Rajshahi Public Health Engineering laboratory, reports UNB. According to the report of the laboratory, the highest 0.42 miligram of arsenic content was detected in per litre water of the tubewell owned by A Sattar Master of Taluksubal. The samples have been sent there by the district administration. The sources said although a senior chemist informed about the contamination in six tubewell waters through a letter, only Sattar's tubewell has been sealed up and no measures were taken about the other tubewells. When contacted, Deputy Engineer of Public Health Abdul Latif admitted the matter and said they could not take measures as they did not get any direction from the higher authorities. The level of arsenic contamination found in different tubewell waters included 0.03 miligram in Sonarpara Jam-e-Mosque's tubewell, 0.18 miligram in Shah Alam's tubewell at Nowdabos, 0.05 miligram in Thana Parisad's tubewell and 0.03 miligram in residential quarter Padma's tubewell. contents

July 23, 1997

Netherlands keen to raise aid to Bangladesh

The Netherlands has shown keen interest to raise its assistance and cooperation in Bangladesh rural infrastructures development particularly building up cyclone shelters in coastal areas, rural housing projects and supply of safe drinking water programmes in villages, reports UNB. This was disclosed today while the visiting Netherlands Minister for Development Cooperation Jan P Pronk who is leading a 12-member delegation called on State Minister for LGRD and Cooperatives Alhaj Syed Abu Hossain at his secretariat office. The Dutch Minister said the Netherlands Embassy in Dhaka and a team of experts will jointly study the feasibility of rural infrastructures development in the coastal areas to assist technical and financial support to Bangladesh government in helping the rural poor.

The LGRD State Minister sought Dutch cooperation in surface water treatment plant in Bangladesh instead of tubewell sinking due to arsenic contamination, for supply of safe drinking water in rural areas.. The State Minister thanked the Netherlands government for its continued support in previous years for Bangladesh government's development efforts. He also apprised Jan P Pronk the Bangladesh government's epoch-making steps in further decentralization of local government bodies and rural development programmes. The Dutch Minister lauded the role of local government commission's report for its recommendation in decentralization of administration, said an official handout. Local government secretary AHM Hye was present on the occasion. contents

July 21, 1997

40 Million at Risk: Needed Awareness Campaign

By Quamrul Islam Chowdhury

Forty million people in rural Bangladesh are now at risk of arsenic poisoning. The number of patients seriously affected by arsenic in drinking water has now risen to 1420. In early 1996, arsenic poisoning of ground water was reported first from Bagerhat, Satkhira and Kushtia, all three south-western Bangladesh districts bordering India. By now the scourge has hit 19 rural districts along the border. Even bad news are pouring on to the table of Health Ministry that adjacent rural areas surrounding the capital city of Dhaka is arsenic-tainted. Stung by local newspaper reports of farmers dying in their huts, Bangladesh officials admitted in June 1997 that 40 million people - more than 30 per cent of the nation's population - live in the arsenic-tainted area, a 500 kilometer swath of golden paddies and steamy banana groves stretching between the Ganges river and the Indian border. Given the vast coverage of this catastrophe, a resource-constraint country like Bangladesh is therefore struggling to even capping arsenic-contaminated tubewells across the rural areas. Poor villagers are at the receiving end. Ill-equipped to deal with the scale of it, the nation is still uncertain as to how to cope with this mass poisoning disaster. True, the government is issuing warnings by radio and television. Three committees - arsenic steering committee, scientific research committee and technical committee - have been constituted to address the problem. A task force is being constituted to run district-wise programmes. Despite the efforts of the government and formation of these committees, mitigation measures are yet to be intensified. Much of the rural Bangladesh has caught up in a panic. Members of the Forum of Environmental Journalists of Bangladesh [FEJB] were the first who did break this bad news. Now FEJB members are trying to sensitize the officials and policy makers about the gravity of the disaster and putting their efforts in raising awareness among the rural community so that this panic can be averted.

What is Arsenic? Arsenic is a white, semi-metallic powder found in nature. Some of its compounds - arsenite and arsenate - are highly toxic and can cause skin cancer, kidney and liver failure, respiratory problems and in extreme cases, death. Other ailments include dark brown spots on the body, thickening of the palms and feet, and warts on hands and legs. Colourless, tasteless and naturally occurring in the sub-soils, the arsenic has been seeping into the region's well water for a generation.

Experts feared that it might have been caused by excessive extraction of ground water, toxic effluents of industries and overuse of toxic pesticides.

Some experts say the arsenic beneath the fertile river delta Bangladesh was probably deposited eon ago after washing down from bodies of ore in the Himalayas. As long as the arsenic compounds called arsenic sulfides were submerged in ground water, they remained inert. But with the advent of intensive irrigation in the 1960s, the aquifers have dropped, exposing the poisons to oxygen for the first time.

The 'Teabag' Theory A new theory has emerged. Once oxidized, arsenic sulfides become water-soluble. And like drops of tea seeping from a teabag, they percolate from the subsoils into the dropping water tables with every monsoon flood. As monsoons replenished the water table, the arsenic seeped into the tubewells, which rural Bangladeshi people rely on for drinking water. But, Bangladeshi water expert Amjad Husain Khan observed that the arsenic contamination has originated in Indian state of West Bengal neighbouring Bangladesh, particularly on the east side of the Ganges-Bhagirathi contaminating ground water of Bangladesh. He said, western border districts specially southern region of Bangladesh is vulnerable to arsenic contamination because the sediments on both sides of the border have the same depositional history and geological environment the region being known as Ganges delta. Khan said, the aquifer of the contaminated zone in West Bengal and that of the region within Bangladesh are hydrologically connected. He said the ground water of the region along the south western border belt of Bangladesh is highly vulnerable to arsenic contamination.

The first reports of arsenic contamination appeared in 1978 in West Bengal in India. The initial theories that tried to explain the cause of pollution were many. Such as results of use of insecticides and pesticides, metal strainers in industrial effluents etc. But, subsequent studies proved such theories as wrong. The School of Environmental Studies [SOES], Jadavpur University, Calcutta, India started investigation in 1988 when sporadic cases of arsenic poisoning began to be reported in West Bengal in India. Their study said, for centuries, a 450-kilometer stretch of arsenic has been lying in rich silt clay 70-200 feet below the surface in an area covering about 35,000 square kilometers. No problem arose until the 1970s when farmers of India began withdrawing huge amounts of ground water to irrigate summer crops, triggering chemical changes in the soil. SOES scientists advise that if catastrophe is to be averted, ground water pumping must be reduced relying more on surface water use for irrigation. As water table falls, pyrites - a mineral which holds the arsenic - begin to oxidise and leach the poison, contaminating thousands of shallow wells in West Bengal in India. Bangladesh is now hit by this mass poisoning sickening hundreds of thousands of rural people.

Symptoms of Arsenic Poisoning. Physicians say the arsenic affected person develops fatigue, nausea, severe leg and stomach cramps, wart-like lesions on palms and soles of feet, skin and organ cancers and nerve disorders. And so on. Clinical investigation into the cause of arsenic poisoning revealed that the poor, already suffering from malnutrition, are the worst affected. At the early stage of illness, an arsenic poisoned person is affected by a variety of diseases including melanosis, keratitis, conjunctivitis, bronchitis and gastroenteritis. Peripheral neuropathis and hepatopathy are the next stages of this poisoning. At the final stage gangrene in the limbs and malignancy in neoplasm lead the poisoned person to death.

Bangladesh Situation. National Institute of Preventive and Social Medicine [NIPSOM] Dhaka have tested in December 1996, 1000 samples of tubewell water in 17 rural districts and found arsenic in 180 such samples. By June 1997 the number of affected districts rose to 19 out of another sample drawn from 24 districts. The arsenic toxicity in the water of the 17 affected rural districts - Bagerhat, Khulna, Satkhira, Jessore, Jhenidah, Chuadanga, Meherpur, Kushtia, Pabna, Rajshahi, Chapainawabganj, Narayanganj, Faridpur, Rajbari, Chandpur, Laxmipur, and Noakhali - is 25 to 35 times higher than the safety level set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Permissible level of arsenic in water is 0.05 ppm, according to experts. Bangladesh Energy Commission found the level of arsenic at between 1.5 and 2 ppm in tubewell waters in districts bordering with West Bengal of India. The situation is so worsening that even dangerous level of arsenic toxicity was found in the water of a tubewell of Bangladesh Health Minister Salauddin Yusuf's village home in Khulna. This tubewell has already been sealed by the district Public Health Engineering Department. The number of arsenic poisoned tubewells is on the rise creating a panic across this rural belt.

Dhaka Community Hospital (DCH) has been conducting research works on it. The result of their investigation shows that the number of arsenic affected people is horrifying. Public health is in jeopardy in areas where arsenic poisoning is extensive. DCH conducted its research on arsenic poisoning among residents in four villages under Ishurdi thana of Pabna district, eight villages and legalities of Kushtia district and one village of Meherpur district.

Water samples collected from the arsenic infected areas of the country contained more than normal percentage of arsenic. The results of the tests shows that 28 per cent of the affected people have more than 100 to 1500 per cent arsenic in their urine, 47 per cent have eight to 20 times in their nails and 98 per cent have 100 to 15,000 per cent more than normal arsenic in their skin. Twenty per cent of water samples contained arsenic which is 100 to 900 per cent more than the allowable quantity. Dhaka Community Hospital screened 920 patients suffering from skin diseases of whom 150 were suspected to have been suffering from arsenic poisoning. Samples of urine, nails, hair and skin were collected from 95 of those 105 patients. Water samples from 41 tubewells were also collected from the arsenic affected areas. These samples were examined at the Bangladesh Centre for Scientific Investigation and Research (BCSIR) and the laboratory of the School of Environmental Science of the Jadavpur University, West Bengal, India.

Social Fallout. As the mysterious sores first appeared on Anil Chandra Das's work-toughened hands, the grizzled rice farmer of Noapara, long hardened against the aches and pains of life in rural Bangladesh, just ignored them. But, the lesions didn't go away. Instead, the small purplish scabs on his palms began cracking and bleeding. Then the headaches started, accompanied by chest congestion and stomach cramps. And finally, last March, the man whom neighbours remember for his breezy storytelling, lapsed into a deathly silence. "He just laid in bed all day and we looked into his eyes. Then one day he didn't open his eyes any more. And we all began to cry," said Ila Rani Das, 16, Anil's daughter. Fighting tears, Ila recalled how her eldest brother, Shyamol, 20, died in August of the same grim symptoms. She held up her palms, the purple sores were there. She is not alone.

The social fallout is creating havoc. Amina Begum, 35, a victim who developed dark brown spot on her skin is socially shunned. She is not also alone. Girls with such spots are unable to find husbands, married women showing signs of arsenic poisoning are often sent back to their parents by their in-laws, young men are refused jobs in rural areas. It happens over the heads of most of the villagers plagued by the epidemic - men like Abdus Samad, 33, who lost both his home and social status to arsenic. "My parents told me one day to leave home when I got sick," recalled Samad, a sad, wiry man whose hands and feet are still cracked with sores months after drinking from safe, arsenic-free well. Shunned, his wife and he built a tin-roofed hut on remote corner of his father's property. "Everybody thinks it might be contagious, like leprosy," Samad said bitterly. "I washed my plates in boiling water for nothing."Rasheda K Chowdhury, Chairperson of Environment and Development Alliance said, the life of entire rural community has been affected by this catastrophe. She emphasized on the need for intensifying the government and non-government measures to avert this scourge of arsenic poisoning that experts say has no equal in medical history.

Mitigation. Because arsenic poisoning often takes months or years to become lethal or debilitating, it can be easily misdiagnosed. If diagnosed early, mild symptoms can be relieved by drinking clean water. Continued exposure to contaminated water can be fatal. Kits that could filter arsenic out of the water cost almost a month's income for many in Bangladesh. The means to pipe in clean water could cost crores and take years to build.

Health Minister Salauddin Yusuf said his government has identified arsenic pollution as a national problem and is determined to solve it. He emphasised the need for joint action in this regard by other concerned ministries along with his one and said an extensive programme has been undertaken by his ministry at field level in the arsenic-tainted areas. He said that his government has taken measures to contain arsenic contamination through identification of patients, treatment, follow-up programmes, supplying pure drinking water, training doctors and creating awareness. But implementation in reality at the affected village level is yet to be geared up. Despite the Health Minister's call, a Taka 20 million project, undertaken jointly by the government and the UNICEF to conduct a survey in the arsenic affected areas across the country is yet to take off.

Health Secretary Muhammad Ali said a preliminary survey to identify arsenic affected patients has been conducted in 17 different rural districts of Bangladesh. He said instructions have been given to the Department of Public Health and Engineering to supply arsenic pollution free water in the affected areas. Besides, he said, instructions have also been given to test the tubewell water locally in every district.

Stressing on the need for undertaking preventive measures against arsenic toxicity, Dr Abdul Wadud Khan of NIPSOM said, his department has already developed a filter to purify arsenic contaminated water.

There is no definite cure for arsenic poisoning but uncontaminated water and nutritious food over a period of time nurture sufferers back to health. Unfortunately, there are few alternative water supplies in the affected districts and most of the people in the area can't afford nutritious food.

Dr Mujibul Huq, Head of Dermatology Department, Dhaka Medical College Hospital said, with proper medication and access to pure drinking water, arsenic-affected patients can be cured but it is important to take advice from the experts at the early stage. Medicine for this is scarce now and steps have been taken to make those available, he added.

Water Development Board geologist Mizanur Rahman suggested rainwater harvest as a preventive. Storage and utilization of rainwater is a low-cost technology to counter arsenic contamination in the water, Rahman said. It is particularly pertinent to the monsoon season. A daily consumption can not be met with small filters, the government should take up a crash programme for mobilizing mass awareness. Rahman expressed his concern regarding disposal of the arsenic waste gathered in the filters. If the arsenic waste is randomly disposed, this can create further havoc through contamination of drains, ponds and other water bodies. Another blunder is to be avoided: don't simply sink the tubewells deeper to tap fresh water from a lower level. If you sink a tubewell deeper, this could serve to contaminate the pure water below.

The cast of characters in the emerging health disaster includes armies of quack doctors who prey on the poisoned victims, knowing that arsenic has no real cure other than switching to clean drinking water.

Conclusion Once one of our paramount leaders, Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani warned the proponents of the Green Revolution about the danger of over extraction of ground water. The policy-makers in 1960s did not pay heed to the warning of the wise old man whose words now come true. The Green Revolution is no more a hero. It has turned into a villain. By drilling hundreds of thousands of expensive tubewells to irrigate its high-yielding crops during the dry season, scientists now say the government has unwittingly exposed millions of its rural people to naturally occurring poisons in the ground water. There is no time to the decision-makers to lapse. They have to now act, act and act. They have to avert this mass poisoning.

The general secretary of Forum of Environmental Journalists of Bangladesh, the writer is a senior correspondent of BSS and a leading environment activist. This is a specially prepared version for The Daily Star of the report presented at the ESCAP sponsored Regional Workshop on Promotion of Environmental Awareness in Rural Communities held at Bangkok on June 30-July 2, 1997. contents

July 18, 1997
Editorial: Fight Against Arsenic

A WHO-organised consultation meeting held in New Delhi has come up with a set of recommendations for tackling the problem of arsenic contamination. Apart from suggesting immediate treatment for people affected by arsenic poisoning, it calls for providing safe water or identifying sources of such water for people in the arsenic-prone areas. Experts have acknowledged a few water treatment methods developed domestically to free water from arsenic. Their request for WHO assistance to test the efficacy of those methods is worth considering.

What could, however, prove decisive in our fight against arsenic contamination is the setting up of a national reference laboratory for testing the quality of water through a comprehensive site investigation. Water samples have to be collected from all over the country for measuring their arsenic content. The experts rightly recommend for developing a database on arsenic in drinking water. On the basis of this, the need for drinking water in different areas could be assessed and remedial measures taken.

This is key to a management information system. So the government must move fast to tackle this problem. Hydrological surveys, as suggested, might help identify underground aquifers free from arsenic contamination. The government with help from UN agencies should take up such projects because they are beyond the capacity of private individuals. contents

July 17, 1997

Regional experts suggest urgent steps to tackle arsenic problem

Arsenic International experts have termed the contamination of underground water by arsenic in Bangladesh as a major public health hazard and suggested the government to tackle it on an "emergency basis," reports UNB. "Immediate relief on emergency basis should be provided through supply of safe drinking water to all those affected or at risk because of the current exposure," recommended a consultation meeting organised by WHO in New Delhi.

International experts on arsenic and policy-makers from India and Bangladesh at the meeting also suggested immediate action to treat the people suffering from arsenic poisoning. The consultation meeting, organised by WHO's South East Asia Regional Office (SEARO), recommended formation of well-equipped task forces to identify and address patients with arsenic poisoning, said a WHO press release yesterday. The meeting's "recommendations for action," prepared to provide a policy guideline to the national authorities in Bangladesh and India, were made available this week.

The experts observed that public health personnel and NGO staff in the areas having arsenic problems should be trained for rapid case identification and management. "Tubewell water in the locality where patients have been detected should be tested in order to ensure safe water and prevent further exposure to arsenic for those who are at risk," according to the recommendations. The meeting said supply of safe water could be ensured by identifying sources of safe water or by treating surface water that was not contaminated, removing arsenic from contaminated water and harvesting rain waters. The experts acknowledged a number of domestic and community water treatment methods developed recently to remove arsenic in drinking water. But they called for WHO's assistance in reviewing and evaluating the efficiency of these arsenic removal technology.

The meeting emphasised the need for mass communication campaigns to raise public awareness about the effects of arsenic contamination and ways to get arsenic-free water. It said comprehensive site investigations and private water sources should be carried out to find the presence or absence of arsenic. It also recommended for setting up of a national reference laboratory and surveillance of water quality. As a long-term objective, the experts recommended that national data bases on arsenic in drinking water need to be strengthened and a comprehensive management information system be established to facilitate monitoring, better planning and implementation of programmes. They also suggested the government to undertake hydro-geological surveys in order to identify underground aquifers. contents


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