Skip to comments.Arsenic Poisoning Crisis in Bangladesh
Posted on 06/23/2010 9:45:30 PM PDT by nickcarraway
It's believed up to 77 million people have been exposed to toxic levels of arsenic from contaminated drinking water in Bangladesh. The Lancet medical journal reports the high arsenic exposure is the tragic result of a community development project in the 1970's that went terribly wrong. The UN's World Health Organisation is describing Bangladesh's arsenic crisis as "the largest mass poisoning of a population in history."
Presenter: Matt Abud Speakers: Dr Dipankar Chakraborti, head of School of Environmental Studies, Calcutta's Jadaypur University; Arif Ahamed, project team leader, World Bank .
ABUD: Over twenty percent of all deaths in the study were caused by arsenic poison in the water supply. That's one of the conclusions published in the Lancet medical journal this week.
The research followed almost twelve thousand people in the Araihazar region for six years. Just over four hundred died during this period, with over eighty of them as a direct result of arsenic build-up.
It provides hard data on a long-running public health crisis that experts knew was extremely bad- but not exactly how serious. The crisis began with a well-meaning, hugely-successful public health project. In the 1970s unclean surface drinking water led to widespread diarrhoea and other illnesses, and many deaths.
The Bangladesh government and aid organisations drilled millions of tube wells, to access water underground. For years, no-one realised the groundwater was itself contaminated, with natural arsenic.
The first signs of long-term arsenic poisoning are often blisters on the hands and feet, and then a wide range of possible cancers.
Dr. Dipankar Chakraborti was the first to prove the problem, when he saw evidence of poisoning on a home visit to neighbouring Bengal in 1996.
He says the impact has been enormous on communities and individuals.
CHAKRABORTI: Ranu the girl whom I saw, she was a beautiful lady. She was fifteen at that time in 1996, so 2009, thirteen years plus, but she looks like 50 years old. And those who are suffering, they're miserable. It's difficult to believe, that in those families mother, father, who are affected, many of them are divorced and other things. I cannot express to you how bad it is.
ABUD: Almost eighty percent of the people in the Lancet's study were exposed to arsenic levels above international safety standards - with most people's water contamination measuring fifteen times too high.
The highest level of arsenic exposure the study found was more than eighty-five times the recommended maximum. Arsenic poison builds up over time - and the Lancet study suggests that even low levels of exposure are risky.
The World Health Organisation has famously described this as 'the largest mass poisoning of a population in history'. But Dr. Dipankar Chakraborti says governments in Bangladesh and neighbouring India ignored his evidence for years.
Both medic and activist, he now heads up the School of Environmental Studies in Calcutta's Jadaypur University. He's highly-critical of government and international aid efforts to solve the problem.
CHAKRABORTI: This government is a hypocrite. They get the money, they're not involved with the people. My saying is that we have plenty of water in these affected areas. Like Bangladesh, everywhere is water, water, and water. If we could manage that with people's participation, this problem could be solved.
ABUD: In previous years the World Bank has funded the testing of tube wells for contamination - but the number of wells is enormous, and levels of contamination vary from place to place.
Now the Bank is running a pilot project to set up piped water to rural areas, as part of efforts to combat poisoning. Arif Ahamed is the project's team leader.
He says the government simply isn't putting in enough effort to solve the problem.
AHAMED: I would say they're not giving much priority in this sector. There's no policy guidelines or regulations of rural water supply up to now. Sometimes we see that after the project period, after installation of this infrastructure, things become ineffective or lying idle.
ABUD: Community awareness of the problem has increased - but it's only the first step.
AHAMED: Most of the households in rural areas, they install their own tube-wells. I would say that seven hundred thousand tube-wells have been installed in Bangladesh over the last decade.
... but they had good intentions.
It would have a sweet taste, if it were in high enough concentration.
Allah Akbar Bangladesh
It is hard to believe that water was never tested for contaminents. Even in or especially in a third world country that just seems unreal.
I’ve also heard that carpal tunnel syndrome can be a result of too LITTLE arsenic in the water....I know someone who’s Naturapath solved her CTS with it.
They’re purposely diluting the blame, which rests firmly on UNICEF. I’ve been following this story for many years and they’d always been referred to alone as the guilty aid group starting c. 1970. Heads should have literally rolled for negligent mega mass homicide, but I don’t think there have even ever been any charges filed. UNICEF back then looked at Bangladesh losing lots of children to diarrheal illnesses from using untreated surface water for drinking, cooking, etc. So they decided to be good liberals and drill them a slew of wells and thus avoid the surface’s sewage problem. But they never did ANY testing of the well water quality. Their intentions were good, what could go wrong? It turned out that the rock underlying most of the country was full of arsenic and thus so was the well water. Arsenic in well water was a known problem for 100s of years. There were 600 well studied cases of such poisoning in Taiwan in the 1960s and US had routinely tested for it since at least the 1940s. This is a very slow cumulative irreversible poison often taking decades to manifest. No water testing was done until large numbers of people started to manifest obvious symptoms in the 80s.
A related story from http://nj.npri.org/nj99/03/facts.htm-
This time the EPA wanted information on the effects of arsenic in drinking water. The community of Hinckley, Utah had naturally occurring arsenic in its drinking waterat concentrations four times higher than the national drinking water standard. Hinckley residents had been drinking this arsenic containing water for decades, ever since Mormon pioneers had settled that area. We proposed a study to the EPA to compare the health of people in Hinckley to the health of people in Delta, another Utah community. Deltas water met the national arsenic standard.
Since arsenic was thought to be a carcinogen, we focused on cancers, particularly skin cancer, which arsenic was alleged to cause. We organized a team of medical professionals, including a dermatologist and a neurologist. We gathered health histories and conducted physical examinations to see if we could detect any effects that might be attributed to the arsenic, including skin cancers and neurological abnormalities.
In this study, we were responsible for analyzing the data ourselves. We found hardly any skin cancers, and the few we did find were more or less evenly distributed between the two communities, so we could not say they were caused by arsenic exposure. Our dermatologist concluded from the examinations he conducted that there was no reason to believe that arsenic was causing people in Hinckley the health problems that it had been alleged to cause. Nor did the neurologist find any arsenic effect either. Our detailed statistical analysis of the data indicated no difference in the health of people with high arsenic exposure compared to people with low exposure.
The real world is so odd, eh?
Why only skin cancer?
See JohnBovenmyer's post at #9 for details that match what I remember from this. Also
Arsenic toxicity is much more pronounced in those who are malnourished. For example, selenium in the diet might offset arsenic in drinking water. I imagine that plays some part here--identical levels in a different population might have produced chronic effects.
Also note that arsenic comes in different species. Arsenite (As[III]) and arsenate (As[V]) are highly soluble in water and very toxic; species such as monomethylarsonic acid (MMA) and dimethylarsinic acid (DMA) aren't nearly so. You can take in relatively immense amounts of arsenic if you eat seafood (especially lobster, clams, shrimp, etc.), but it is in minimally toxic forms and it tends to pass rapidly out in urine. Though I recall a study noting that the excretion curve leveled out early, it's obvious that the toxicity isn't equal to that of inorganic arsenic swirling around in water or doses from only a few bites would be unsafe.
It's not. They specifically looked at neurologic effects, too. And it doesn't look like the limited themselves to that, from the way it is written, but since those are the two most pronounced symptomsindicators of arsenic toxicity, they deserve special mention, especially if skin lesions aren't in ares commonly exposed to the sun. I am not a physiciian, but presumably the dermatologist could tell. Lung cancer is also relatively common with arsenic, so perhaps they checked that, too.
I guess when “Global Warming” causes the ocean to rise and flood flat Bangladesh, there won’t be many left to move and those that do will have better water.
I remember reading about this problem... back in 1991 soon after the start of Gulf War I .
At the time they didn’t see any solution without a few paired nuclear power plants and desal plants. But there was no will, no money, and the little problem of putting nuclear plants in tidal areas in the flood plains.
And that was the best solution I remember being offered.
THe larger article did not explain, but given the stufy was paid for by the FedGov (EPA) reason is not always stated.
Worth reading the larger piece, very damning of the EPA - given the recent news, it can provide some good backgound information.
At least here in Iowa I don't think chronic arsenic poisoning is common. As a dermatologist I haven't seen the relatively specific albeit not very sensitive non-malignant skin changes of it in probably 20 years. Having multiple superficial basal cell carcinomas or multiple lesions of squamous cell carcinoma in situ are the most talked about malignant signs. Outbreaks of such in the dark skinned Bangladeshi population pointed to occult arsenic exposure. I've certainly had LOTS of patients who had LOTS of either or both, but most had had plenty of sun or tanning bed exposure to explain their cancers. I've asked those with lots of cancers but not sunny histories about it, but have yet to find a history of arsenic exposure to explain it.
Although Iowa is geologically low risk people move around enough I'd expect to have seen at least one case if it weren't generally rare in the US. I expect water testing to at least the old standard, better awareness and controls of occupational exposure and the virtual end of arsenic's once common Western medicinal usage has made it rare here. Arsenic still can be found "contaminating" many imported products marketed as "traditional" Chinese or Indian medicinal remedies. It likely accounts for some of the perceived benefits of those relatively unregulated products.
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