Arsenic Poisoning: Are we Losing Ground!

November 11, 2008

Part -I: Aresenic mitigation or commercial ventures

Photo: Arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh.

Latifa Begum of Alipur, Faridpur is counting her final days lying on the floor of Faridpur Sadar Hospital. She comes from a very poor family. Her husband died years ago, and her eldest son sells newspapers to barely survive in these difficult days.

Sulekha of Vashan Char, Faridpur died of internal cancer because she used to drink arsenic polluted water. Her mother started to narrate what happened but she had to stop, took her sari to wipe out her tears and continued:

When Sulekha came back from the hospital her whole skin became infected and began to rot. She could hardly breathe. She implored me, ‘Mummy, what evil have I done? I have not done anything wrong. And yet I must suffer and die. Mummy, please tell me, how long shall I suffer?’

“O My love has gone to a far country,
If God would only give me wings
I would fly thither.
I would go to that golden land, flying.
We are simple women.”

The story of Sulekha repeats all over the country. In most cases the cause of the suffering and the death is unknown. Even Sulekha did not know. If one drinks arsenic contaminated water death does not come within a short time. Instead people accept suffering and death as fate. You cannot just say to them, “don’t drink this water.” You have to educate them and provide alternatives.

Those who already died are from Aliabad, Kuzurdia and many other areas. And many more are waiting for their miserable days to end without knowing the reasons. The contamination of wells with arsenic is one of the greatest environmental disasters being faced today and must rank as one of the worst in recent times. Few policy makers like politicians and bureaucrats live in the affected villages to experience these sufferings and nobody cares about the people dying.

In the recent decade a number of arsenic NGOs in Bangladesh had engaged in arsenic studies, research and mitigation. With some exceptions most of them have been selling commercial products to cleanse arsenic contamination from edible water resources. They have not been successful in stopping the contamination except extracting some good profit.

Afsan Chowdhury, a senior assistant editor of The Daily Star says:

What became obvious was the extreme contempt in which the official technocrats and bureaucrats held ordinary people. The entire idea of development in Bangladesh is based on the GO-NGO co-operation model and the people have little role to play in this. NGOs are generically fund seekers and now provider of employment.

Most of them have almost no reality beyond this. And this generally grovelling bunch conveniently represents the public face in the eyes of the donors who ultimately decide policies. Not because they want to but because they have to. The ability of the national counterparts is so low that they would not be able to formulate a policy without donor support. They are unable to disagree either because that might mean fund cuts. So it all ends up in the same basket.

Worse still, the token efforts of the World Bank and other aid agencies have added nothing to the solution of the problem. On the other hand, in the regions with high arsenic concentration, exposure to arsenic has ‘alarmingly’ increased the infant death rate, cardiovascular and cancer deaths and skin lesions.

There are many quarters, according to an international study conducted by the World Bank and the Water and Sanitation Programme, who are pursuing their diverse interests, not always humanitarian, centring the arsenic issue.

Politicians in the affected regions are in a dilemma as to how to tackle the arsenic menace, while the donors and the international financing institutions are reluctant to deal with it, the study says.

For arsenic mitigation more than 40 Million US Dollars of fund found their way to Bangladesh from different sources (World Bank, UNICEF, US AID, CIDA (CANADA), JAICA, SIDA, Australian Aid, UNDP etc.). But even with this huge amount of financial resource the organizations concerned totally failed to address the arsenic problem. Dr. Ainul Nishat (IUCN), a renowned water expert, says the achievement of arsenic mitigation by the Government and NGOs is doubtful (The daily Prothom Alo August 12, 2008).

Part -II: Its a catastrophe waiting.

The Daily Ittefaq published an article on July 26, 2008 that 80 million people of Bangladesh have high risk of arsenic poisoning. Specialists from Dhaka Medical College, Mitford Hospital, and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University reported a rapid increase in different cancers, liver cirrhosis, kidney, skin patients due to arsenic poisoning. If this continues a catastrophe of deaths will augment day by day. Dr. M. N. Huda of Mitford Hospitals said that arsenic patients from Kachua, Motaleb of Chadpur, Daundkandi of Commilla and Mushiganj are reported to be in increasing numbers day by day.

SOS-ARSENIC is reporting about this problem for the last decade.

Long-term exposure to arsenic in drinking-water causes increased risks of cancer in the skin, lungs, bladder and kidney. It also leads to other skin-related problems such hyperkeratosis and changes in pigmentation. Consumption of arsenic also leads to disturbance of the cardiovascular and nervous system functions and eventually leads to death. (WHO report, Smith et. al, Sept. 8, 2000) (

Smith predicted a big increase over the coming years in the number of cases of disease caused by arsenic. These ranged from skin lesions to cancers of the bladder, kidney, lung and skin to cardiovascular problems. Bangladesh is grappling with the largest mass poisoning of a population in history because groundwater used for drinking has been contaminated with arsenic.

Photo: Matabber of Purbogangabarti, Faridpur and 10 members of the family died because of drinking arsenic contaminated water above 800 µg/l (80 times higher than WHO standard) for decades.

Arsenic dose vs. deaths

In Region of northern Chile, 5-10% of all deaths occurring among those over the age of 30 were attributable to arsenic caused internal cancers, in particular bladder cancer and lung cancer. Average exposures were in the order of 500 µg/l (0.5 mg/l) over 10-20 years (Smith, 2000).

The symptoms include Hypo pigmentation (white spot)and Hyper pigmentation (dark spots), which are collectively called Melanosis and keratosis (break up of the skins and on hands and feet).

Bangladesh’s position:

Arsenic contaminated water has affected people in Bangladesh immensely. Arsenic poisoning through contaminated drinking water can lead to diseased arteries, which in turn can cause heart attacks and strokes.

My observation in Faridpur was that those who were drinking 500 µg/l over 10-20 years are already dead or facing serious health hazards. And those who are drinking low dose to medium (most of Bangladesh’s population) only the time will say whether they will lead a normal life!

WHO showed that with exposure to water containing about 600 µg/L, which lead to 1 in 10 adult cancer-deaths may be due to arsenic-caused cancers. This is the highest environmental cancer risk ever reported.

Using the current US Environmental Protection Agency standard of 50 mg/l (same in Bangladesh), it has been estimated that the lifetime risk of dying from cancer of the liver, lung, kidney or bladder while drinking 1 litre a day of water containing arsenic at this concentration could be as high as 13 per 1000 persons exposed (30). Using the same methods, the risk estimate for 500 mg/l of arsenic in drinking-water would be 13 per 100 people (13%). In a latest document on arsenic in drinking-water, the US National Research Council concluded that exposure to the standard 50 mg/l could easily result in a combined cancer risk of 1 in 100.

Due to the carcinogenic nature of arsenic, the World Health Organisation has issued a provisional guideline for maximum permissible concentration of arsenic in drinking water — 10 micrograms per litre. But most developing countries, including Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan, still use the former WHO-recommended concentration of 50 micrograms per litre as their national standard of arsenic in drinking water, particularly due to economic considerations and the lack of tools and techniques to accurately measure such low concentrations, the study points out.

Part -III:Simple technological solution is all we need.

Countless editorials and reports have been published on arsenic contamination but we all know that as far as concrete results are concerned, our achievements have not been overwhelming.

Over the years in Bangladesh, a surfeit of arsenic NGOs engaged in arsenic studies, research and mitigation, have been vending some business wares to extract good commerce out of the menace of arsenic contamination. (New Age May 19, 2006)

Millions of dollars have been spent in arsenic mitigation and other related projects in Bangladesh without much effect.

LGRD Ministry ignored suggestions of simple pragmatic methods to combat arsenic mitigation from the concerned projects. Several deep tube wells were unnecessarily sunk, where shallow water wells still are in use. The easiest and the cheapest alternative is to identify “stratigraphic trap of arsenic free water” (if present) within contaminated aquifers within deltaic deposits.
SOS Arsenic and the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission, together with the World Bank conducted an isotope investigation of groundwater in a village in March 2005.:

“The results of this study, which used Stable oxygen and hydrogen isotopes and tritium, identified an arsenic-free aquifer in the eastern part of the village with a source of recharge different from the arsenic contaminated aquifer in the western part of the village. These results led to a fresh review of the geological and hydrological data, which then were re-interpreted, resulting in the discovery of two aquifers with little groundwater flow between them. Thus, the eastern aquifer could be used to supply arsenic-free water to Chapai Nawabganj. This will eliminate the need for a separate water treatment plant, thereby saving millions of dollars needed to build and run the plant.”

Immediate alternative:

There are enough shallow arsenic free aquifers in Bangladesh, which without spending any loan money can solve 80% of arsenic problem. But you cannot earn much money with this simple solution!

We have identified a channel sandfacies at Kazuri, Alipur (Ambikapur) in Faridpur. At Kuzurdia, Bedbaria and Kasnail most of the wells are arsenic contaminated but an ancient (about one thousand year old) mid channel sand show arsenic free aquifer. We have made Kuzurdia village arsenic free. It is strongly recommended to look for arsenic free aquifers. A sound knowledge on underground geology, hydrology allows to identify arsenic free aquifer at shallow depths. This is a very cheap and highly acceptable alternative.

Faridpur Water Supply almost a century old. Obtained arsenic contaminated ground water 220µg/l but after air treatment and sedimentation it becomes almost zero.

Do we need foreign expert and money for this simple technology?

Simple, pragmatic and immediate alternatives are:

  • Digging deep tube wells in Southern Bangladesh, with special reference to saline water intrusion and improved drilling methods on a contaminated aquifer.
  • Installing “Arsenic free water trap” at shallow depths.
  • Rain water harvesting.
  • Dig wells, only when “shallow water trap” is not available.
  • Low cost community based water purification units.
  • New and immediate agricultural policy – “Flood Water Irrigation”.
  • Consciousness-education in all level
  • Environmental protection through traditional wisdom

The people will invent more methods and survival strategies, if we really want to survive and refuse vested business interests of many western countries offering inadequate and expensive technologies.

Dr. Jamal Anwar, son of poet Jasim Uddin, alumni of Dhaka University and University of Kiel. He worked in three continents notably in Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission, Dhaka University, Petrobangla, University of Kiel and is now working in a German Research Institute. He wrote 4 books, one of which on Arsenic Poisoning in Bangladesh.



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