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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 its discovery.

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 his life.

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 arsenic.

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 contaminated water.

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?


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