The government of Bangladesh has reaffirmed its goal to make the country’s drinking water arsenic-free by 2013.
“Safe drinking water is a major problem in Bangladesh. We have to use more chemicals for more agricultural production to feed more people. Chemicals contaminate the water sources, so does arsenic. We will make the country arsenic free by 2013,” declared Finance Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhit on 30 January at the biennial conference of the Bangladesh Chemical Society.
Dhaka has placed added emphasis on research and innovative technology to address the issue, as well as additional financial resources, he said.
His words come as more than 2,000 residents in the village of Garchapra, Alamdanga sub-district in Chuadanga District, fear developing arsenicosis after years of drinking contaminated water.
A recent survey conducted by the Department of Public Health Engineering (DPHE) and the Chuadanga District Health Office has confirmed 130 arsenicosis cases in the village.
Tube wells in the area showed high concentrations of arsenic. Seven members of one family are now feared to have died from arsenicosis over the past 10 years - a development that has left residents worried.
“Everyone thinks he or she might become the next victim of arsenicosis and die,” Asirul Islam, chairman of Jehala Union (local government unit at community level) said.
Drinking arsenic-contaminated water for a long time may cause severe skin lesions that may lead to skin cancer. Persistent arsenic intake may also cause cancer of the bladder.
Photo: Naser Siddiqui/UNICEF Bangladesh
Drinking arsenic-contaminated water for a long time can result in severe skin lesions that may lead to skin cancer. Persistent arsenic intake may also cause cancer of the bladder
So high are arsenic levels in Bangladesh that the World Health Organization (WHO) has described it as “the largest mass poisoning of a population in history”.
Naturally-occurring arsenic-contaminated water was first detected in Bangladesh in 1993 and is largely attributed to arsenic-rich material in the region's river systems, deposited over thousands of years along with sands and gravels, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says.
According to WHO, drinking arsenic-rich water over a long period results in various health effects including skin problems (such as colour changes to the skin, and hard patches on the palms and soles of the feet); skin cancer; cancers of the bladder, kidney and lung; diseases of the blood vessels in legs and feet; and possibly also diabetes, high blood pressure and reproductive disorders.
To address those fears in Garchapra, DPHE officials visited the community and approved 10 tube wells for drinking water.
Additionally, the NGO Forum for Drinking Water and Sanitation - a national NGO - started an arsenic mitigation campaign in the region and is busy distributing medicine for the treatment of arsenicosis patients.
Government health centres at sub-district level have also been assigned the task of distributing vitamin-fortified anti-oxidant capsules for patients.
“The patients are given a 30-day cycle of medicine and told to take one capsule a day. Patients with serious ulcers on their body are given salicylic ointment for external use," Bazlur Rahman, district health administrator of Chuadanga District, told IRIN.
One in five tube wells contaminated
In Bangladesh the acceptable level of arsenic in drinking water has been set by the government at 50 parts per billion (PPB) or 0.05 microgrammes per litre of drinking water, while the approved global WHO standard is 10 PPB.
More than five million tube wells have been tested since 2000. Twenty percent of the wells have been found to exceed the government approved limit of 50 PPB. One in five tube wells is not providing safe drinking water.
Out of 87,319 villages in the country, there are more than 8,000 where 80 percent of all tube wells are contaminated.
About 20 million people in Bangladesh are using tube wells with more than 50 PPB of arsenic, said a UNICEF document.
A British Geological Survey (BGS) study in 1998 on shallow tube-wells in 61 districts found 46 percent of the samples contained above 10 PPB and 27 percent above 50 PPB.
It was estimated by the BGS in 2000 that the number of people exposed to arsenic concentrations above 50 PPB was 28-35 million and the number of those exposed to more than 10 PPB was 46-57 million.
Health experts estimate that arsenic in drinking water will result in tens of thousands of cancer deaths in Bangladesh.
Shallow tube wells
The poisoning in Bangladesh stems from the creation during the last 30 years of millions of shallow tube wells usually less than 100 metres deep, and capped with a metal hand pump.
Many of the first wells were constructed as part of a programme to provide "safe" drinking water.
Although thousands of tube wells are known to be pumping arsenic-contaminated water, they remain the main source of drinking water for more than 70 percent of the country’s 150 million-plus population.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions