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Arsenic A Human Tragedy And Not Just A Newspaper Story - 17 Jul 2002

Sylvia Mortoza

Anew article on arsenic published in the New York Times publicises the extent of the damage done to peopleís health but it is not really telling us anything we donít already know. In fact we at this newspaper have been constant in our own evaluation of the situation and have continuously brought our readers up to date on what is happening where, when and why. We have also provided readers with information on what measures are being taken to bring relief to the affected people. Yet despite this, the biggest tragedy to hit us is still not recognized by potential victims or by those who live in Dhaka and feel they are safe from harm.

The inability of people to comprehend what they cannot see or understand is sad. That something they cannot see or taste and comes from below the ground can possibly do them harm, especially as it does not seem to affect everyone, is simply beyond their comprehension. As Dr. Allen H. Smith says, "It seems like nonsense to people, telling them the water is killing them when it looks so clean and nice."

Yes it does look so clean and nice and it tastes good too but it hides its true nature as a killer, but how is anyone going to convince them that the arsenic in the water is a slow, sadistic killer. But with Bangladesh in the midst of the "largest mass poisoning of a population in history," tens of thousands of people mainly villagers are showing the outward signs of arsenic poisoning.

Although this impending tragedy was most definitely known by 1990, it took until the mid-1990s for the government of Bangladesh to finally admit that yet another disaster was rapidly unfolding in their poverty-stricken, disaster-prone nation. In 1998, the World Bank sped the normal paperwork and lent the government $32.4 million to act on the emergency. As the NYT wrote, "Every tube well was to be tested. Safe sources of water were to be provided." But instead, what happened?

Obviously as the quality of water for poor villagers is so far down on the scale of priorities, we should not be surprised that no resources are forthcoming. But to be fair, in the absence of sufficient funds, the government has little choice but to let people continue to drink the contaminated water mainly because most of the countryís estimated 11 million tube wells are still to be tested.

Most people who switched over to the safe water from the tube wells are not only baffled when told that the water is poisoned but are unwilling to give up the convenience of a tube well close by against the inconvenience of carrying water from the river or pond. But though people need to be prevented from drinking the contaminated water, they are unlikely to pay attention to any warnings until it is too late to save them.

Many villagers display signs of the poisoning, but it is still hard to know the extent of the contamination or how many people are going to die from arsenic-related causes. But with one of our own public health specialists predicting a total of three million to five million people will die, we should be worried.

Much will depend on how many Bangladeshis can be persuaded to switch over to an alternative supply of water and how many will be provided with water that is safe and accessible? We can assay a guess. It will not be many so we are left with the words of Han A. Heijnen, environmental health adviser for the World Health Organization in Dhaka, ringing in our ears when he said, "It has been terrible frustration to watch. So much remains to be done. Even now, the lack of knowledge among villagers about arsenic is a shame."

Sylvia Mortoza writes from Dhaka , her e mail : zainah@bdonline.com

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