Arsenic Poisoning - A National And Personal Tragedy
17 Feb 2003 by Sylvia Mortoza
After reading what Dr M I Zuberi of the University of Rajshahi has to say
about arsenic poisoning, we all have a very vivid picture of what is going on in
numerous villages throughout Bangladesh. This is of increasing concern
especially as we know about 29 million people are still drinking water
containing arsenic in excess of 50 mg/L even though many years have passed since
Although Dr Zuberi reports specifically on the findings of one of his
students - a member of the Arsenic Mitigation Group (AMGRU) of the university -
when he paid a visit to his village in Sarishabari Upazila, Jamalpur, the same
may be said for many, if not all the villages in Bangladesh. At his village,
Izarapara, and its neighboring village Gibindanagar, the people, indeed the
whole of this district is badly affected by arsenic contamination.
These particular villages are large as villages go and have between 3000 to
4000 inhabitants each. Although the student could examine only a sample of ten
families, they were representative of the rest of the village. He found most of
those above the age of 18 to 20 have been affected by ingesting arsenic and have
the telltale spots, warts and ulcerations. One member had an ulcer on his leg.
The leg was later amputated but even that drastic measure was not enough to save
The sad part of the story is that as reported by the villagers, they have had
these symptoms for several years but was not aware of the cause, that is arsenic
in the drinking water. But that is not the end of the story. The people of
village Izarapara drank water from six hand-pumped tubewells but when the
Department of Public Health and Engineering (DPHE) tested them for arsenic in
2001, they were all found highly contaminated.
Although the DPHE labeled and sealed some tube wells, the villagers resunk
four to a deeper depth. The DPHE also planned to sink one tubewell to 300 feet
but they could not go deeper than 265 feet because they hit hard rock. But to
the disappointment of the villagers, when tested for arsenic by the DPHE, all
the newly sunk tubewells were also found to contain arsenic at levels above the
recommended 0.05 mg/L.
Before leaving the village, the official told the villagers not to drink
water from these tubewells and then he left without providing any alternative
supply source of drinking water. The result is villagers have to continue to
drink this water because not only are there any alternatives, they have also not
been provided with a technology that would at least reduce the amount of
This is bad enough in it, but worse is yet to come because, according to the
villagers, a Japanese team also came to the village and examined the water and
saw the affected people too. They also asked them not to drink the water from
these tubewells but without putting anything else in place. Some reported they
were promised help, but as nothing happened, they continue to drink the
Now that the members of this group are planning to help these villagers get
filters for reducing arsenic in the water, and are endeavouring to find other
sources of arsenic-free water for them, there is some hope for those villagers
who have not yet affected. But the sick will not find solace from this as though
they will be given treatment and food-therapy to alleviate the toxicity, those
who have already gone past the point of no return will not be helped.
When Dr Zuberi and his student re-visited this village this year he was
accompanied by Dr Alauddin, a member of the Faculty of Wagner College, New York
(USA), an analytical chemist who has done a great deal of research on arsenic,
in the hope of providing them with filters and collecting some field data. But
that was not possible as the filters were not available for distributing.
The result of tests carried out on water samples collected from 8 tube wells
of the village was available however. Four were highly contaminated (304, 270,
226 and 107 ug/l ) and three with low (two <2.0 and one 8.6 ug/l). Though the
visitors suggested the villagers have two dug-wells in their locality, they were
more interested in having an arsenic filter each.
The search is still on for an effective and sustainable solution that is
culturally acceptable, it is with a tinge of sadness that some technologies
already proven effective, are not being made available because of bureaucratic
hang-ups or red tape.
One particular technology that is "home grown" in the sense it has
been designed by a Bangladeshi scientist for the express purpose of helping his
brethren overcome the arsenic problem has still not been sanction as for sale to
affected villagers. In fact, according to reliable reports, the authorities
insist nothing can be placed on the market or even given away, without a
certificate from BSCIR even though they may have passed the environmental tests
of BAMWSP/OCETA, the Canadian environmental technology verification project. But
if, as reported, BCSIR is not in a position to test new technologies for another
six months, should people be deprived of this for some bureaucratic hand up?
Moreover, there is little effort underway to discover the preferences of
rural households but one thing can be gleaned - people are reluctant to accept a
technology that is less convenient than the tubewell. People will opt for either
piped water or tubewell water whether or not it contains arsenic and this is the
major problem because it is clear that the level of awareness among the people
about arsenic and its health hazards is too low and now that arsenic is also
building up in the soil from irrigation and is moving fast into the crops, the
arsenic hazard is about to increase.
After all, rice is our staple crop. It provides people with 70 percent of
their daily intake of calories and though it is grown mainly under rain fed
conditions, when rice is irrigated by groundwater that is contaminated, it will
affect the crops. With the demand for food grains expected to grow by 2.5 per
cent per annum in the next 10-20 years, maintaining the sanctity of our rice
crop will be all but impossible.
What this could mean for people is clear and the failure to pay attention to
this aspect of arsenic contamination is an unforgivable oversight because as
early as 1997 scientists were saying it could happen, some said it would happen,
and that the crops will get tainted and will in turn taint the meat of the
animals we eat, but did any of us listen?