Not Helping

Sometimes people who want to help, actually hurt.

Throughout the 1970s, international donors provided funds for the sinking of ten million shallow hand-pump wells across the nation of Bangladesh. The idea was to provide people with clean drinking water, and so reduce the number of people felled each year by waterborne pathogens like cholera.

Three decades on, it develops that these wells are responsible for what the World Health Organization is calling “the largest mass poisoning of a population in history.” For the wells tapped into arsenic deposits, releasing the odorless, colorless, and tasteless toxin into water used for drinking and cooking. It is now estimated that between 35 and 77 million people in Bangladesh have been chronically exposed to arsenic-contaminated water.

“The magnitude of the arsenic problem is 50 times worse than Chernobyl,” said Richard Wilson, president of the nonprofit Arsenic Foundation[.] “But it doesn’t have 50 times the attention paid to it.”

When the wells were sunk, neither the ground nor the water were tested for arsenic. New wells continue to be dug, still without testing for arsenic.

It’s not like the problem is newly discovered: the British Geological Survey was sued earlier this decade for failing to test for arsenic during survey work in Bangladesh in 1992. In 2002 it was estimated that some 35 million people in Bangladesh were drinking arsenic-contaminated water.

Some argue that the international community must help fix the problem created by the wells they first dug.

“They’ve known about it for at least 20 years, so we expected them to be much more aggressive on this issue,” said Dr. Mahmuder Rahman, a retired professor at Dhaka National Medical College and Hospital, who has worked for years on the arsenic issue. “They’ve got a moral responsibility to do it. Time is running out.”

A multi-year study recently published in The Lancet found that more than 20 percent of the deaths recorded among the 12,000 people monitored appear to have been caused by arsenic-tainted well water.

The new research, funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and published online June 19 in The Lancet medical journal, is the first to examine how drinking arsenic-contaminated water over time shaves years off lives.

For the nearly 12,000 people followed over 10 years in the country’s Araihazar region east of the capital, researchers found that even low doses of arsenic in drinking water could increase the chances of early death. The study also found that damage on all levels appears to be permanent.

More than 75 percent of those studied drank arsenic-contaminated water above WHO’s recommended safe limits. Victims get sick slowly, and it can take years to develop the tiny black or white dots peppering the skin that are characteristic of arsenic poisoning. Most people exposed never develop these classic symptoms at all.

Arsenic kills with cancer, heart problems, liver failure, and disruptions of the central nervous system.

Bangladesh is one of the world’s poorest nations. Half the people live on just $1 a day. Few can afford to dig deep wells drawing safe water from clean aquifers. Filters are expensive or difficult to maintain.

The number of new wells doubled every five years during the course of the Lancet study.

Bangladeshi authorities are in denial.

“To be frank, I have my doubts about these findings—I would like to examine their methodology more closely,” Bangladeshi Health Minister A.F.M. Ruhal Haque told AFP on Sunday.

“Arsenic is a problem in Bangladesh, there is no question about that, but the risk that contaminated groundwater poses to the majority of the population has been blown out of proportion by this study,” he said.

“Tube wells are a problem, but the government has been testing all wells, and when we find a contaminated one, we clearly mark them and stop villagers using them.”

“I knew before marriage that there was arsenic in the tubewell, but I decided to take it,” Hanufa Bibi told a reporter from AP. She lives in the village of Chandipur, where all the wells are contaminated. “The water quality of this tubewell is much better than others.”

Bibi’s fingers and palms are spotted with black warts, characteristic of arsenic poisoning.

“People don’t want to eat anything from my hands. They are afraid,” Bibi said softly. “No one wants to touch me.”


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When I Worked

June 2010
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