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Article From News From Bangladesh archives

Arsenic In The Groundwater

Sylvia Mortoza

It is surprising to find there are still people in Bangladesh who are unaware that an arsenic disaster has overtaken the country. Those who have heard about arsenic however, it has become a by-word or a topic for discussion but for those who are forced to drink the contaminated water because there is no alternative available, it is a tragedy because it could mean a death sentence. This is more poignant because many tube wells that only a year back were coloured green meaning safe to drink are now coloured red meaning contaminated.

As such we can expect a rise in the number of cases of arsenicosis. With evidence that contamination is increasing in some districts, we must be more on our guard than ever and the day may be at hand when the only arsenic-free source of water in Bangladesh will be surface water.

If policy-makers are interested in water only as a resource, there is a strong likelihood they will do very little to mitigate the current situation as they seem least interested in the details of the science behind the impact on society. But policy makers must weigh science, societal needs and wants - and public acceptance, which means they must find an integrated approach if they are to be able to solve the problem, or deal with uncertainty. It is an unfortunate fact that policy makers only take action when they perceive something to be a threat and even then they do not take action before seeking a broad base of involvement and support.

With 90 percent of the population getting their water from the tubewells people are now turning up at clinics and health centres with arsenical skin lesions in the late stages of manifestation of arsenic toxicity.

Today 22 to 25 million are believed to be consuming the arsenic-contaminated water on a daily basis, while 75 to 80 million are considered to be at risk. As arsenic has no taste, smell or colour, convincing people of the danger is virtually impossible and many people refuse to believe they are drinking liquid poison.

Convincing them is made harder by the fact that the arsenic in the water does not equally afflict people. Methods of mitigation are continuing but are not nearly enough to solve the problem and with the probability of contamination from crops such as rice or certain vegetables to consider, fighting arsenic is a major task.

But as arsenic poisoning is not pretty, it is essential to get through to them about the risks they are facing especially as field data shows that a given concentration of arsenic in the drinking water affects people with poor nutrition more than it does those with a better level of nutrition. Recent data from the Dhaka Community Hospital reveals that 56% of the tubewells in the country have arsenic above the WHO level for Bangladesh of 0.05 mg/l. The toxic level in 3342 hair samples was 89%. The toxic level of 3346 nail samples was 98%, 1043 urine samples gave a toxic level reading of 92%. As the main group to be affected is the 16 to 40 year olds - the most productive group there is ample cause for worry.

Jean Dixon who "saw" the death of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas made another prophecy. She foresaw that due to an environmental disaster that would take place this century the population of Bangladesh would be decimated by two- thirds! It would be terrible if this prophecy were to come true.

What we would like to see is someone on the ground actually doing something to prevent people from poisoning themselves to death or misery, whichever comes first! The questions that need answering are: 1) Has anyone prepared a brochure of low cost methods designed to help the villager perfect his water supply and make sure he is not poisoning himself and his family? 2) How much actual application of these technologies is going on.

How many millions are being spent on things like SWD, iron filing treatment systems, etc.? If there is a concerted effort going on, that is fine but we would still like to know about it. In other words it must be made public and all new developments and improvements must be properly publicised. If not, we cannot be sure if the experts are doing their job.

Copyright 1998 Global Amitech


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